Dress the Mouse in Black

Grief is a mouse in the house. Unless it’s taken outside now and then, it will nibble a person away and leave an empty husk behind. No one survives death, of course, but some do not survive grief.

I discovered this when my wife Evelyn unexpectedly died of a heart attack in her forties. I had never lost anyone close and didn’t know how to grieve.

Death is hidden from us in mainstream America. We seldom see dead people or mourners, and have come to expect that everyone, except for the unfortunate few, will live to a ripe old age. This expectation didn’t use to be the norm.

Our great-grandparents grew up in a world where death was a companion, and families averaged eight children with the hope that half of them would survive childhood. People died from pneumonia, polio, and a host of other diseases and maladies that are successfully treated today. Grief was visible on the streets, and every family knew death. We forget events like the flu pandemic of 1918 that killed thirty million people around the world, and that dead bodies were stacked in streetcars of American cities.

One hundred years ago, mourners wore black clothes or black armbands in public so that people could come up and offer condolences as they did their shopping. Black wreaths were placed on the front doors of homes, so everyone would know that someone had died. Generations still lived under one roof, and children saw the progression of life as grandparents grew into the brittleness of old age and died.

Now we pay strangers to take care of family members who are dying. Deaths happen away from home, in hospitals or nursing facilities, and funeral houses take care of the bodies. We hide our grief from others—the crying and rage, the incoherent ramblings, the depression—worried that people might think we’re not strong or that our faith is weak, especially when our mourning lasts longer than a week.

We don’t pay attention to death until it forces us to. Then the “For Sale” sign goes up in the neighborhood, and we wonder who is moving away. If we check the obituaries, we realize that people are dying all around us, and we have scarcely noticed.

We regard every early death as the result of something going wrong. When a child dies, we think it’s a great injustice. When the evening news reports a fatal car accident, we act as if this were an unusual event. When a woman in her thirties dies from an inoperable brain tumor, we don’t know how this could have happened.

In a study called “Grief Mythology and the Invention of a Modern American Tradition,” Gary Laderman says that at the end of the nineteenth century in Victorian America, people openly showed their sorrow, but when modern medicine developed between the two world wars, perceptions shifted. The clinical view of life took over, and it reasoned that since death was a natural event, people should take a moment for sadness and then move on. Like getting tackled hard in football, you were expected to shake it off and get back in the game, even though you had suffered a concussion and weren’t really sure where you were or what you were supposed to do.

The rapid advances in medicine, like the development of penicillin and the smallpox vaccine, took away many of the causes of early death, like the tetanus that killed Henry David Thoreau’s brother when he cut himself shaving. With each new medical discovery, people lived longer. People who expected to die in their sixties were now lasting into their seventies, then into their eighties, and we began to think there might not be a top limit to human life, and we could almost live forever, swapping out organs and joints as they wore out. Death changed from being an accepted, although sad, part of life to being a failure of medicine. Some doctor wasn’t doing his or her job.

In regards to grief, I thought that if I left it alone, it would heal on its own with time. It didn’t. Grief won’t go away until we deal with it. If we ignore it, it will pull us down into depression. If we fight against it, we will be bitter for the rest of our lives. If we don’t work with grief and let it flow through us like a river, our energy and hope will stagnate into a pool of green-gray slime. Grief helps us make the necessary changes so that we can let go and smile again.

In American communities with northern European backgrounds, like the German-American one I grew up in, death observances tend to be stoic, while those from southern Europe, like Italian-American, tend to be more emotionally expressive. In New Orleans it’s common to have a Dixieland band lead the funeral procession with dancing and celebratory music. In Chinese-American communities in San Francisco, firecrackers and drums are used to scare away malevolent spirits.

When death occurs, the bulk of our attention focuses on the person who died. There is the casket or urn, a service of some sort where the dead is remembered with mostly kind words, and the burial, internment, or scattering of ashes in a beautiful location outdoors. Other than sending a condolence card and flowers, there are few rituals or traditions to help survivors grieve or guide them in rebalancing a suddenly unhinged life. Those who are grieving get compassion’s leftovers.

After the body is in its final resting place, mourners in my Midwestern community gather for a potluck of casseroles and gelatin desserts. They say a few words to the family, then return to their busy lives. At this point the gap between those who grieve and those who do not begins to grow. A few friends will stay close for the first month or two, bringing meals and helping with chores around the house; then they depart, and survivors are left on their own.

*     *     *

While death hasn’t changed over the centuries, we have forgotten how to deal with it in healthy ways. How well people recover from grief depends on a number of elements, like their belief in an afterlife, the support they receive from their community, and how honestly they are willing to face their sorrow.

Every cultural and religious group has beliefs about what happens when people die, and there are many similarities. Believing that the deceased is in a better place helps lessen the impact of death, no matter what that heaven is envisioned to be like. Some think the afterlife will be a place where they will reunite with all their loved ones, including pets, or that it’s a vast temple with singing going on all the time. Others anticipate a vast intermingling of spirits with a great cosmic awareness. The Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, imagined that heaven would be an enormous library. This would excite me, but not my wife who is now finding out.

Common elements include: judgment, where the life of the dead is put on trial, and passage into heaven is either allowed or denied; the setting aside of specific days to remember and pray for the deceased; and feeling that one can still communicate with the dead, at least for a short period of time, meaning that our relationships do not end but continue on in a different form.

The focus on making it to the next world may be why some of us don’t take grief seriously. If this world is viewed as a way station, a temporary stop before we arrive at where we really want to be, then whatever we go through here is temporary, including grief and social injustice. This is a theology that works well for those who have money and aren’t suffering.

On top of that, many of the world’s religions encourage their followers to live as people who are dead: “Be in the world like a traveler, and reckon yourself as of the dead.” –Mohammad. “The world is impermanent. One should constantly remember death.” –Sri Ramakrishna. “Zen has no secrets other than seriously thinking about birth and death.” –Takeda Shingen. “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”  –St. Paul. These directions say that suffering in this world is to be expected, so endure them and get back to work.

Tribal societies worked out their systems for dealing with death centuries ago—what to do with the body, how to comfort those who are grieving, and how to provide communal support for the surviving family.

In a paper on the grief traditions of four Native American tribes, Darlene Johnson says the Sioux maintain rituals for the tribe’s public expression of grief, and to make sure that the deceased’s family is taken care of. By custom, the deceased’s possessions are distributed to friends, not the family. The Sioux believe in the afterlife and pray to the grandfathers for guidance.

The Sioux view life as a circle where everything on earth is connected. As buffalo grow up eating the grass of the prairies, and then are eaten by humans for nourishment, so the Sioux feel that humans are part of this. The Sioux wrap the deceased in a robe and put the body in a cottonwood tree where the birds and small animals feed on it. As the body falls apart, it drops to the ground where it nourishes the grass that feeds the buffalo, and the circle of life is completed. These tribal traditions began eroding when elements of Christianity were blended in.

This blending of traditions is one reason why grief has become a forgotten art in America. As community identities were diluted by the desire to fit into life in a modern city, the ethnic, cultural, and social differences were smoothed out, including the rituals that people used to call on to maintain balance during life’s struggles. The result is that people have lost touch with the grief wisdom of their great-grandparents.

Beyond the commonalities, Johnson notes there are variations among Native Americans. Some tribes refuse to mention the deceased’s name, fearful that the person’s spirit will latch on and haunt them, while other tribes speak of the dead with reverence, feeling that the deceased are nearby, listening to what we are saying, and it would be rude to ignore them. The Hopi believe that contact with the dead brings physical pollution, so they ritually purify several people to handle the body. Some tribes cut their hair as a physical sign of mourning.

Practices in world religions vary as well. The Maori of New Zealand hold a public funeral when someone dies, because each person is considered as belonging to the tribe, not to the family, and everyone is expected to wail with grief at the community’s public time of mourning. In Africa, there are tribes that believe that the spirit of a person who dies can be reborn in a descendent.

In Hinduism, ancestors are honored, and the idea of reincarnation weighs heavily. If people live a good life, they go on to the next higher level. If they live a selfish life, they come back as lower beings. Because Evelyn suffered with ailments for years while she took care of others, I think she would go on. But my wishes for her may not be fit criteria for what actually happens.

In many cultures, it’s common for a surviving spouse to die within months of the partner’s death, unable or unwilling to continue on alone, especially after a long marriage. This makes psychological sense, because if two people believe they are made one by marriage, then living without one’s other half is too painful, both emotionally and physically. Doctors say that the stress of living without one’s spouse can weaken the muscles of the heart, and people die of what we lightly toss off as a broken heart. My grandmother had been with grandpa for over sixty years. After he died, she managed to last a full year, but she was stubborn.

The Hindu tradition of Sati takes this marital devotion a step further for a variety of reasons, some social and some financial. In it, a widow commits suicide on her husband’s funeral pyre—reminiscent of what Clytemnestra was supposed to do in Greek mythology. She didn’t because she had plans for revenge for her husband’s murder. Although Sati has been outlawed since 1829, it still happens today.

The Parsis of India, like the Hopi of the American Southwest, consider dead bodies to be impure. They do not bury or cremate the deceased, because to do so would pollute the sacred elements of earth, air, water, fire, and ether. Instead, they take the bodies of their dead to a Tower of Silence that is open to the sky, and vultures come down and dispose of the remains. Sikhs hold special readings for seven or ten-day periods.

Ancient Egypt, taking a different tack, took care to preserve bodies in preparation for what would be needed in the next world. Those who could afford the services were elaborately embalmed, with all the interior organs removed except the heart, which was considered the core of a person. The brain, deemed unimportant, was diced up and pulled out through the nose. The poor were buried in hot, dry sand that naturally embalmed their remains. Egyptians felt that after death, one’s soul was escorted into the hall of judgment for a decision by Osiris. If the person had shown enough compassion, the heart was processed into eternity.

In Buddhism, especially the Tibetan version, there is a forty-nine-day journey between this life and the next, during which time the dead person is presented with three openings to the next life and either recognizes them and goes through, or does not. The journey is called the Bardo of Becoming, and those who get stuck here without making the transition to the new place become ghosts.

Tibetans believe that grievers can help the dead by praying for them during the first twenty-one days after death. The focus of the prayers is two-fold: asking the Bodhisattva of Compassion to help the dead, and encouraging the dead to seek and accept the light. Praying can be done anytime, but it is believed to be particularly effective in the place and on the day of the week that the person died. Like the Parsis and the Sioux, Tibetan Buddhists leave their dead out in the open for recycling, although they first cut the body into smaller pieces.

For the first week, and then on the death date each month, I lit candles each night to guide Evelyn through the darkness to wherever she was going, and to bring me hope.

China has a number of native religions as well as world religions like Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. My brother Kurt witnessed the funeral procession of one tradition where family members wailed loudly until they reached the gravesite. Then the widow ritually tried to throw herself into the grave while other mourners ritually held her back. In another tradition, there was no public display of emotion, just quiet reverence.

In regards to grief, I thought that if I left it alone, it would heal on its own with time. It didn’t. Grief won’t go away until we deal with it. If we ignore it, it will pull us down into depression. If we fight against it, we will be bitter for the rest of our lives. If we don’t work with grief and let it flow through us like a river, our energy and hope will stagnate into a pool of green-gray slime. Grief helps us make the necessary changes so that we can let go and smile again.

In the Japanese culture, with its mixture of Buddhist, Shinto, and folk beliefs, the bulk of grief work is focused in the first forty-nine days when the living express their sorrow, and the community provides support. If grieving is not yet finished, as when the death was due to an act of violence, then more time is allowed. Rituals are conducted during this period to help the dead get to their new place. When this period ends, the household altar becomes the place to honor the dead and where the living can talk to the ancestors and receive guidance. Japanese Buddhists hold a monthly Shotsuki memorial service, and each year the summer Bon festival celebrates all who have died.

In Western Christianity, tension exists between feeling joy that the dead person has gone on to heaven, his or her ultimate goal, and feeling sorrow over our loss. Christians believe that each person has an immortal soul that does not end with this life. Roman Catholics say a mass for the deceased to help them get into heaven. They also believe in purgatory, a stopover on the way to heaven where the dead atone for their sins before being allowed in. Protestants do not believe in this.

For mainstream Christian denominations in the Midwest, other than a potluck meal after the funeral service, there isn’t much that is organized for grievers. The exceptions are megachurches that are large enough to have an ongoing fellowship group for grievers and individual congregations that hold quarterly or yearly focus groups for those who have lost loved ones.

Celtic Christians have traditionally used wakes to: celebrate the dead person, give a good sendoff to the next life, and help the living accept what has happened. Elderly women of the neighborhood would come in, wash the body, and lay it in a room for mourners to offer a prayer and say a few words of condolence to the family. In another room the deceased’s life was remembered through stories, song, and drink. The Celts also believe in cross-world communication with the dead, especially during Samhain at the end of October, when the barrier between this world and the next world thins to a veil and people can see and hear each other.

Communal Christian groups that have sustained their cultures, like the Amish and Old World Mennonites, have done better at maintaining their grief rituals. In the Amish community, grieving families are seldom left alone for the first two or three weeks, according to Steven Nolt of Goshen College, writing in the Indianapolis Star after the shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in 2006. During these weeks there are daily visitors, as well as visits every Sunday for the next year.

The Amish know that events happen in life they can’t control, but they trust God to watch over them. This belief allows them to accept death when it comes and to forgive people who have caused the death of their loved ones, even the deaths of children, instead of feeling anger or having thoughts of revenge. After this tragedy, one father said of the shooters that they must have been suffering terribly to do something this horrific.

Muslims observe communal mourning for three days, bringing food, reading verses from the Qur’an, and staying overnight so that the surviving spouse is not alone. The family often wears clothing of mourning for forty days. In some traditions the mourning color is black, and in others it is white. Shiite Muslims mourn their dead on the third, seventh, and fortieth days. In Egypt the day of condolence is forty days after death. Public expressions of grief for women include wailing, scratching the face, and hitting oneself. In some traditions these outward displays are discouraged. Some Muslim men will not shave for forty days.

Muslims and Christians believe that God either allows or causes everything to happen for a purpose, so people should be happy, even if loved ones die, because they have been chosen to be part of God’s plan. I don’t believe that Evelyn’s death served any purpose. She just died. If anything, it took compassion out of the world because Evelyn was taking care of children who were learning challenged and helping people deal with grief.

In Judaism there isn’t much discussion about the afterlife because the focus is on taking care of matters in this world, not the next. In the twelfth century, the great Jewish theologian, Maimonides, addressed this. He said that while there was an afterlife, its details were best left alone: “As to the blissful state of the soul in the World to come, there is no way on earth in which we can comprehend or know it.”

In the Jewish tradition, from the moment of death until the end of the funeral, survivors honor the dead in a time called aninut—the “hollow days,” an apt term because that’s how this time felt to me. They tear a piece of clothing, symbolic of their everyday life being torn. After the funeral, they observe shiva, covering mirrors and sitting with their grief for seven days while others take care of their basic needs. They also receive well-wishers during this time when I figure they’re numb to everything, and the words of grief from others do not deepen their own. This also gives the community the chance to acknowledge its sorrow over the death. Then survivors mourn for thirty days, shloshim, after which time they rejoin the daily life of the world, believing that God will provide what they need. After twelve months, and on the anniversary of the death each year after, the yahrzeit, the dead person is remembered by lighting a memorial candle.

Discovering the Jewish traditions helped me realize that grief was going to last much longer than I anticipated, and its rites gave me a time structure for my journey.

*     *     *

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross spoke of five stages of grief, and while they are helpful for sketching out the general territory that grievers have to traverse, it should be noted that people do not go through all of the stages, or in the same order, or with the same intensity. A person may also go through the same stage several times; anger will run rampant, go away, pop back in, and go away again. Gradually, the stages fade into the background as people make peace with grief.

In addition to the support they receive from others, survivors need to do grief work on their own. They need to take risks and try new things. They need to figure out what they are feeling and share this with others on an ongoing basis so that they can release these emotions before they turn toxic. They can also create their own rituals to honor their dead. Besides lighting candles, they can create altars of memories to acknowledge the continued presence of the loved one in their lives. Donations can be made to organizations that the deceased supported as a way of continuing their compassion in the world.

In recent years, grief support groups in the community have been set up that one can attend, organized either by how the person died (cancer, heart attack, drunk driver, and so on), or by the griever’s situation (widow, widower, single parent, teenager, child). These groups provide a valuable forum for sharing one’s struggles with people who understand your fears, doubts, and the behaviors that you think may be weird or unstable. Here you find out that others are also doing things like setting a place at the dinner table for the deceased each night or leaving the TV on all day so there are other voices in the home. Support groups let members know they are still a valued part of a community and are not alone in what they are going through.

Books are another resource I consulted, although most were written about someone dying, and not about grief. Their words helped me to understand the full dimensions of sorrow and connect with my emotions, and inspired me to go deeper into my struggles. They also put grief into the larger context of human existence. The poets of the T’ang Dynasty in eighth century China were particularly attuned to grief. There have been a few recent books about death and grief that are notable, like Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye, Kate Braestrup’s Here If You Need Me, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and Kathleen Dean Moore’s Wild Comfort.

Helping others who are in need can help us realize that we haven’t cornered the market on suffering. By helping them, we feel better about ourselves.

After Ev’s death, knowing how quickly any of our lives could end, I wanted to grab life by the horns like my rock-climbing friends in Yosemite who take risks. As they work their way up the side of a mountain, they understand that they can be seriously injured or die, but they also know how alive they feel when they are climbing. And when they die, whether it’s later this afternoon or in fifty years, they want to be sure that they have lived life to the fullest. People, then, will not mourn a life cut short, but celebrate a life well lived.

The turn in grief recovery comes when we can celebrate our deceased. By celebrating them, we honor who they were and what they did. In a short paper called “A Buddhist’s Perspective on Grieving,” Joan Halifax said that when she was finally able to do this, her mother moved from being a source of sorrow to being an ancestor who now lived as a healthy part of her.

Spending time outdoors is helpful for many who grieve, because the awe and beauty of natural landscapes draw them outside of lives that have been closed in by grief. In nature, I saw that death was accepted as part of a natural cycle and noticed that areas of massive destruction were growing into scenes of new beauty. Being outdoors and looking up at the stars moving in constellations through the sky, hiking through forests and across mountains, and listening to birds sing helped me realize that I was part of something much larger than my own individual life.

The year after Evelyn’s passing, I hiked eight miles to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite and held a memorial service for her at 7,500 feet. In a place that she was never physically able to reach, I made a pile of white granite rocks and added a purple Scottish thistle to honor her and her heritage. I sat and talked with Ev, pointing out the sights before us: Three Brothers to our left, Bridalveil Fall and Glacier Point across the valley, and Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and the snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada crest in the distance rising three miles into the blue sky.

In one sense, we are still sitting there on top of El Capitan in the warm afternoon sun, with a cool breeze coming up from the valley floor, and celebrating the beauty of the natural world. Moments of life like this stay with us.

    *     *     *

If I hide from grief, it will come back, whack me behind the knees, and take me down like a sack of potatoes. Those who grieve know that the long battle is both physical and mental. At times, my journey of grief has felt like rafting down a wild river with turbulent rapids and cascades that threw me out of the boat. At other times, it felt like long stretches of calm water when nothing seemed to be happening, yet the shoreline continued to go by. In both cases, I was healing in unseen ways.

It is not surprising that we run from grief. It’s not a happy event. It deals with something traumatic, and it forces us to change our lives in significant ways. What is surprising is that, in the midst of all the emotional chaos, people are willing to show up on our doorsteps and listen to us talk about grief, knowing that they cannot take the pain away, but believing that they can lessen our burden if grief is shared.

Life is suffering, as world religions like to remind us, but it’s also celebration, as the Celts believed. When we can hold grief in one hand, joy in the other, and still dance, then we have found the balance that enables us to live full lives.

While there is much that I still do not understand about grief, I know that I am on a journey that is restoring me to life.

Mark LiebenowMark Liebenow writes about grief for the Huffington Post. His essays, poems, and reviews have been published in journals such as Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry, Citron Review, Swink, Crab Orchard, DMQ Review, and Fifth Wednesday Journal. The author of four books, he has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, and the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay awards. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. http://widowersgrief.blogspot.com

Stonewall and the Village

I lived on Waverly Place then, around the corner from the local cruising stretch of Christopher Street. The acquaintances I collected at the time thought I was somebody, had to be somebody to live in the center of Greenwich Village. But of course I was the nobody Rilke spoke of in the “Homeless Waif,” Ich bin niemand und werde auch niemand sein, who always would be nobody. Nevertheless, some of the Warhol crowd courted me. Andy was always on the lookout for another dubious talent to dub, “Super Star.” With my long hair and bangs, dark eyes, black turtleneck and green fatigues, I reeked “poet maudit.” With me ubiquitous in the streets of the Village, the white-haired ghost apparently thought I could be groomed to be another “super star.” To be possibly played with like a cat tossing a mouse. Who cared then? FAME, that was the game. But, a pity. I shattered that illusion by selling poems in the street like a common mendicant. A nobody.

That evening I had been over in the East Village, traversing the river of humanity down Eighth Street. It was still an early night, but the East Village had been tame, so I moved on. Staid and predictable as the West Village was to me, it was home. Not totally boring, however. I had met a flood of acquaintances there. And, as well, the healthy young studs from Jersey who cruised Christopher all the way to the trucks parked overnight at the docks. Action in those vacant trucks was legendary. It was a big step up to a slippery floor and silent groping fingers. Pleasant enough, but ultimately redundant to me. The East Village was more like a jungle, more hazardous and pleasantly drug infested. It had vitality. I felt alive there, hipsters hunkered down in their cave-like apartments. From Tompkins Square on, the East Village bloomed. The alphabet avenues. By the time you got to “C,” it was heavy. An element of danger electrified the air.

So, back I trudged my queer ass to a small West Village room that was home, possibly to connect with a Jersey boy. As I rounded the corner by the Women’s House of Detention, the regular cliff of voices screaming obscenities down to the “faggots” strutting by, was in full orchestration. But this time something else grabbed my attention. Further down Christopher, I heard a clamorous crowd of hundreds. I dashed to this new action, ignoring the ladies in their “castle.” They were generally disregarded anyway, unless they became creative in their invective, which was seldom. Off I scampered to this new action. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Christopher Street was packed; people everywhere, even backed up to the intersection of Waverly Place. My corner. I inhabited that corner quite frequently. The crowd overflowed into Sheridan Square, pointy little triangle that it was with its barely confining decorative but low iron fence. All eyes were directed toward the Stonewall, a noisy gay nightclub frequently “raided” by the police. I read later that in the hubbub that night, a famous folk singer who was in the Stonewall slinked out into the Lion’s Head next door not to be perceived as “queer.” The latter establishment was a basement hangout for writers of the Village Voice newspaper, and acceptably hetero. However, the slink did not pass unnoticed, and was mentioned later in the Voice by a gay writer who didn’t hesitate to “out.”

The crowd appeared festive. New Yorkers seem to enjoy spontaneous entertainment. Especially involving the police. Particularly at the expense of the latter. I quickly discovered the source of their merriment. Police were barricaded inside the Stonewall. With a discordant chorus of queens shouting, “Get the pigs,” and other unflattering epithets sprinkled with obscenities, the “straights” gathered there seemed delighted. They may have despised “faggots” or “queers” in separate dialogues at other times, but now they were cheering “gays” for displaying such cajones. I think a few even joined the shouting, infected with mob mentality.

I decided to feign being a reporter and interview a demonstrator or two. Made sense to me at the time, since I was generally an observer of the scene anyway. I found one young queen with flaming red hair who was engrossed in his vocal vilifications. I was hesitant to interrupt his soliloquy of “down with the pigs” and similar concise verse, repetitively declaimed in a rather high pitch for such invective. His arms would flay up, perhaps to give his meager chest more air. Who knows? It was dramatic. One can’t accuse us ‘faggots’ of not being dramatic. I tapped him on the shoulder and he flung around. If I hadn’t ducked I probably would have been hit in the face.

“What?” he screamed at me. “I’m not doing anything. It’s the pigs. You’re not a pig, are you?” His eyes were positively raging. It could have been frightening if he were any less fem. It was intimidating enough, as it was.

“No. I’m not police. I’m a writer. I’m one of you. Fuck, I’m gay. I was over in the East Village tonight. Just got back. Hey! What’s happening anyway?”

“They tried to grab one of our sisters. Enough is enough!” He then tossed a few copper coins toward the door of the Stonewall shouting, “Here’s money, pigs. You haven’t been paid off enough!”

“What’s this all about?” I continued.

“They wanted to arrest one of our sisters and we fought back. Finally. We just want to have a good time. They don’t need to do that. Raiding us all the time. Pigs! And we were dancing. It was lively, man.”

“Pigs!” he yelled again.

“You were in there?”

“Sure! I’m there almost every night. I haven’t seen you, honey. I’d notice you. You do look familiar, though.”

“I’ve been in there. Not much, though.”

“Butch thing like you must go to the trucks. That’s where all the leather queens are now. Scared of this, I guess. Dykes and us nellies. That’s who’s fighting the pigs.”

“Pigs!” He shouted. Mentioning the word set him off again.

“What happened?”

“I told you. We were dancing. Having a great ole time, and the pigs come in, grab one of the dykes, Sheila, who was giving them lip and were going to arrest her. That’s when we started fighting back. ‘Don’t you touch our sister’, I yelled at ‘em. We’re getting tired of this. We don’t have to take it anymore. They raid us every week. Almost. I know the Stonewall pays them, but they still raid. Damn pigs.”

“How’d you wind up out here?”

“They chased us out like they always do when they raid and were going to hold that sister, but we fought them and brought her out with us. Then they closed the door and then we started yelling. They’re barricaded in there. Behind that door. Chicken shit pigs!” He then gripped a parking meter and tried to rock it back and forth.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to pull this fucker out and get at those pigs.” I envisioned his using the parking meter as a battering ram. But his efforts merely succeeded in loosening the meter a bit. There was no way he was pulling that thing out of the ground. It was just as well. I found out later that the police had their pistols pointed at the door and would have shot anyone trying to get at them.

Coins got tossed more regularly now. Apparently the crowd received the message, it was all a matter of payoff to the police. Not getting enough payoff, holding up the owners for more. And for once the “cocksuckers” fought back. Oh, it wasn’t that Mr. and Ms. Straight thought the ‘faggots’ weren’t sick, but this was a fun way to begin a weekend. A pleasant June evening, and who knows, it might be in the papers. The time the queers had balls. And those damn police, they always carried things too far.

Everything continued for a while that night but eventually the police radioed for reinforcements. These newcomers in blue first cleared the streets, then rescued their comrades cringing inside the bar. On a subsequent night it was announced that the police would clear Christopher Street to prevent any further disruptions. At that time I lived around the corner (my corner, remember) and followed the events daily. Christopher wasn’t a particularly wide street, with brick buildings of modest height and occasional little shops and residences. It felt old. Old New York. With faggots cruising up and down the sidewalks. It was, after all, their street. Except, with the rosy fingers of dawn and the bustle of people making a living, queers faded into the walls, to only materialize much later like vampires.

That next night a phalanx of police in riot gear and big plastic shields marched down Christopher completely filling the area between the buildings. As they marched, a little group of queens fearlessly did a can-can in front of the police line singing, “We are the Stonewall Girls, we wear our hair in curls, we wear no underwear … to show our pubic hair.” Not the cleverest of lyrics, but the dance itself was a spectacular display of joyous contempt. Those precious daring fairies. “Fuck you!” it said, as only a faggot can. One can imagine the response of the police personnel inside their helmets, their stoic belief in masculinity threatened with this affront and their authority mocked by “fairies.” My old Village compatriot, Harry Koutoukas, claimed he orchestrated the can-can. I didn’t believe him then. Who knows? It happened. That was what mattered.

The next day as the police marched down the street in a scene reminiscent of a war movie, I was with an acquaintance, Willane. She was trying to interest me in a friend of hers from Texas after she not too cleverly discerned she was not my type. Her friends said she had a real knack for selecting faggots as potential mates, an unfortunate honing device that amused and was useful to her gay friends. Of the latter there was no scarcity since most of her friends were in the arts in one way or another.

“Sweet boy,” she told me, referring to the young Texan she had in mind for me. They were all part of a contingent of Texans who decided to invade New York. They had done Austin and were preparing for a larger playing field. Several were in theatre, several in music. Artsy as I said, but Texans, nevertheless. Willane, who like most Texans dripped with money, had an apartment right on Christopher with a balcony from which we could observe the incredible passing scene.

Sometime during the Stonewall events we were stuck on the street, Willane and I. And the police were advancing. “Willane, dear, do run,” I said and took off like a deer myself. She followed but gleefully chided me afterwards, implying cowardice on my part. “Do run,” she mocked. I figured she could certainly take care of herself and I had not been brought up in the “protect the gentle sex” mode like I have observed the Texans do, regardless of their sexual persuasion. Her particular Texans had, thank God, advanced to the state where they found my reaction droll rather than reprehensible. As for myself, I found a Texan to love for a few years, which is sometimes all we can ask for.

The Stonewall incident brought a kind of solidarity among the Village queens. And tourists. In particular, gay tourists. Gays who hadn’t visited the Village much before. I remember one outlandish black queen, Nova, who was slim and rather pretty with cute little breasts. “Estrogen,” she’d say, explaining the bumps. “Feel them. They’re real. I don’t even wear a bra.” That was obvious, of course. I didn’t feel the necessity of taking her up on her generous offer.

Nova was saving up for “the operation.” Occasionally one would hear that in the Village those days. Being poor and basically untalented except for her candor (a quality often underappreciated), Nova hustled. But it could be a precarious existence. Adding to that, she had to traverse Spanish Harlem at night to get to her home uptown. The Puerto Rican men she encountered in the streets must have been threatened by her blatantness or thought she was a real woman and thus vulnerable to their charms. So, she carried a hatchet in her purse.

One time, a cop stopped her and discovered the hatchet sticking out. “You can’t do that. It’s a deadly weapon. It’s against regulations.”

“But what is a poor girl to do? I’ve got to protect myself. I go through Spanish Harlem every night to get home.”

“Well, I suppose you could carry a hammer. There isn’t any regulation against that, or at least it’s less obvious.” So, Nova did just that.

“But what good is a hammer, Nova?” I asked.

“I may be a lady but I got muscles. Feel these.” And she flexed her arm to demonstrate a smallish but very hard bicep. “Let them spicks bother me now. I got my little ball-peen hammer right here. And I can do some damage.” She patted her purse. I didn’t need to see how she could protect herself. Her will demonstrated that.

One day when I encountered Nova, she informed me that she had met our local national celebrity, someone whom I really did admire: “Miss Allen Ginsberg,” and “I told her a thing or two.” I smiled at the female address she used, as many fem gays do when referring to any gays. I myself regarded Allen as relatively masculine and certainly much too hairy to be a “she.” His friends would be appalled. That alone elicited an extra dimension to my grin. I loved Allen, he did a lot for gay awareness and beat poetry. But his pedestal was getting wearisome.

And yet. Where would gay liberation be without Allen Ginsberg? Oh, it was amusing, those first few weeks of gay liberation to this cynical observer. The meetings of Gay Lib served with less-than-sophomoric Marxism, with a dash of strident calls for “Robert’s Rules of Order.” An obvious attempt to imitate the black and women’s movements and more established organizations, but generally we were not an orderly or overly rational group. It was our charm. Ultimately, our strength. But I couldn’t take it seriously. However, I do applaud their efforts. They made it. WE made it, I guess I should say. But no way was I about to take part in meetings. Just not my thing despite the eventual amazing outcome of it all.

There was one young gay-lib enthusiast we christened “Miss Boston” in honor of that person’s port of origin. A slight boy with strawberry blonde curls. You’d think of him as Irish. Not one of the Back Bay elect, I would guess. More likely of the great “unwashed” multitude issuing from that more reserved city north. “She” referred to her hometown regularly as a place to be avoided at all costs. And with the onset of liberation, she spread her wings here in Manhattan, and flowered in alleys … unlit doorways … and between cars. One could say she was an unbelievable slut. I myself had my moments, but she put us all to shame.

“C’mon, honey. Right in here,” as she both pointed to a doorway right on the Christopher stroll and grabbed at my zipper. I pulled away.

“No, Boston. It’s right out in the open. Everyone can see.”

“Who cares? They don’t. Just jealous. Why don’t you? I haven’t had you yet?”

“No Boston. I just don’t want to. I got a friend.”

“Everyone’s got a friend. I have several, but that doesn’t stop me. Besides, as tall as you are, I bet you’ve got a big surprise for me. I’ve seen it swinging,” she nodded glancing quite shamelessly somewhere below my midsection. To be honest, I think she was deluded there, but who was I to pop her fantasies.

“I said, NO.” She was starting to annoy me. Persistent little soul.

“It won’t take very long. I’m very good. They all say so. Come on,” as she tugged on my shirt trying to pull me into the doorway.

“NO. And that’s it… honey,” I added to sweeten the rejection. She shrugged her shoulders and we continued down the street, Boston cheerfully ready to take on the next customer. She’d have lots of opportunities with people much less squeamish than me. Though I did enjoy the hussy’s company. So unaffected in her way.

The Village was definitely a unique part of the city. When I looked toward Manhattan the few times I ventured into the wasteland that was Jersey, it was so apparent that there was a continuous elevation, a base line of about 5 or 6 stories that comprised the island from which the numerous skyscrapers loomed. I guess the reason for that base line was that 5 or 6 stories was the highest a walk-up would dare grow. Otherwise one would require an elevator. And that was what gave the rise to skyscrapers, of course. Elevators. However in the Village, sometimes, there would be buildings of only two or three stories. I lived on the upper level of a three story brick nineteenth-century dwelling. The first floor was actually below the level of the street. Spent quite a few hours on the tarred roof of that Waverly Place residence looking over the adjacent chimney pots. It was my Paris. Though that implies a fantasy world. New York was very real.

And, my god, you could meet the most fabulous freaks. One of my favorite besides Nova was “Terrence.” I don’t recall his real name. He was a legend in his own way, the fellow with four tits. He wandered into New York from vagabond San Francisco. Actually he originated from some meaningless-to-him town in Washington State. A musical comedy queen. His world was that stage, and he lived it as thoroughly as any street person could. Often, when he could pan-handle enough for a night, he resided at a flop house on Bleeker Street with the wretched and perpetually potted. More fortunate times, he would spend the night with a trick he’d pick up in the street. Terrence conveniently was very democratic. Not fussy by any means. And he was tall and lanky, kept himself clean, and had impressive genital credentials. Many moments, I found him singing songs from all sorts of musicals. And relate them to his life. As miserable as that might have seemed to others, Terrence was ever-cheerful.

The four tits came in handy too. “Wanna see my tits. I got four.”

One day he came up to me, almost blissful. “You won’t believe who I met. Slept with too.” Then he sang a few bars from a song.

“I give. Who?” Although I recognized the song I didn’t have his knack of knowing the complete Broadway repertoire, composer, choreographer, director, even some individual singers and dancers. He was a veritable encyclopedia of Broadway trivia. When he told me the person’s name, even I recognized it. And then, of course, wondered how the hell he connected. But that, of course, was the marvel of New York at that time, certainly of Gay New York. You never know who you’re going to meet in the street and what might ensue. And Terrence did keep himself presentable.

Sort of. Terrence, being perpetually broke and enjoying a regular smoke, would pick up butts from the street to smoke. “It’s the same as bumming a smoke from somebody.” I was wary. Then, Terrence, ever cheerful, informed me, “I got trench mouth. I don’t know how I got it.” I didn’t bother to try to explain. He went to the clinic and got healed. Until another time, I guess.

One day, Terrence came over completely beside himself. It was as though he were levitating. “I met her. At a party some trick took me to. It was her for sure. And you know what? She’s going to introduce me to ‘Mama.’ Imagine! Mama!”

“Slow down, Terrence. Who did you meet and who’s Mama?”

“You’ve got to guess. I can’t say her name. And Mama.”

Well, I’m very poor at this game. It might be anyone. Show biz, of course. But anyone. Yet at this juncture I could tell that before long Terrence would not be able to hold back. And he couldn’t.

“Liza. Liza Minnelli.” Well, this time I was certainly surprised. She wasn’t that big then, but Mama was alive. No one was bigger. Not only to a show-biz queen, but to many people, for that matter. I envied him. Terrence, though, was able to ingratiate himself with people. It was a definite talent. He would gush like Old Faithful. Yet with him it was genuine. Or at least I couldn’t tell the difference. I could see how he might manage to get an introduction to the lady from the Wizard.

“I’m happy for you, Terrence. Very.” Though I was, of course, extremely jealous. “Maybe you could introduce me to her. Judy. Mama.”

“Oh you know, Paul, I will. But I’ve got to meet her first. You know.”

Well, I was green. That’s for sure. Much as I appreciated his good fortune, there’s no way I didn’t wish it had happened to me. “Now don’t forget, Terrence.”

“O.K.” Well, as fate would have it, he never met Mama. She died first. But not before I reminded him often to introduce me. Ah, what fools we appear in hindsight. The actual intriguing encounter, of course, was Terrence with his four tits. He did tell me he was invited to the funeral with James Mason officiating. James Mason of A Star is Born, you know. They must have kept in touch, James and Judy (not that I was really aware of Judy’s inner circle). I gave Terrence a poem I wrote after viewing Judy’s corpse at Campbell’s Funeral Home uptown, where everyone gets laid out. I was just inches from her head. You could see the blackness under the make-up. They say barbiturates do that. And her fingers were surprisingly worn. I went to Central Park afterwards where the lines of my poem came to me. I instructed Terrence to give it to James Mason:

Leaves clap in Central Park at dawn while a bird who sang flew over the rainbow.

There was more, but that’s all I remember. Really liked the leaves clapping metaphor. I laid it in Terrence’s hand. “Now be sure to give it to James Mason. He may read it at the funeral.” Well, wouldn’t you know it, Terrence never made to the funeral.

At least that’s what he told me.

“I overslept.”

But that’s not the only tidbit about Terrence. It seems that my landlady had developed an aversion to Terrence due to a little incident. Apparently, one night he couldn’t rouse me and managed to get in the building. Of course you just needed to buzz another buzzer if your friend wasn’t answering for one reason or another. Or follow someone in. Terrence may have been a little under the weather or he would have climbed the stairs to my little room and knocked until I came to the door. As it was, he lay on the cool tile floor at the entrance against my landlady’s door and slept. The floor must have been pleasant on that hot summer evening, though hard. Terrence was used to varying accommodations anyway. But Mrs. Dougherty, fierce little chubby soul that she was, was not accustomed to having to step over bodies to get out of her doorway in the morning.

“Paul. That friend of yours slept on the floor at my front door last night. That tall bum. I almost called the police.”

There was no doubt who it was. I was rather pissed off at Terrence. Such presumption! My existence in that particular building was getting tenuous anyway. I did have visitors at all hours. That’s the way life was for us then. But not for Mrs. Dougherty. Terrence could have really screwed it up for me, once and for all. I believed I had to make her think of Terrence as someone special.

“He really is a Broadway creature, you know. Knows all sorts of people.” That was certainly true.

“I’ll bet. He knows you.

“But really. He’s probably going to be someone someday.”

“Harrumph.” And she slammed the door behind her.

Oh, yes. You probably want to know about the four tits. Sounds better than it was.

He had two regular nipples where they should be and a few inches lower on his bony chest were two brownish bumps, too light-colored to be moles, but still you had to be told they were nipples. However, by the time one would question their authenticity, Terrence had his pants off and treated the viewer to an impressive fleshy member adequate for all sorts of play. I admit that although I admired the abundance and his willingness to share, I eschewed the pleasure of indulging. His whorish history tainted the appendage in my eyes. And though immense, it lacked beauty.

So, Terrence with your four tits. Nova with your new tits. And Boston with your unabashed élan. Where are you dancing now? It’s been so many years. Amazing how that small event at the Stonewall mushroomed into a worldwide movement. The night those “candy-assed faggots” fought like tigers. Being gay I can claim kinship, but not as an active participant in the events of that night. Being here to tell the story is all. Now, despite AIDS and the persistent conflict with the malicious right, GAY is here to stay. Stonewall has become a significant part of history. And our stories still float in the air there on Christopher Street.

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Special Guest Judge, Sharman Apt Russell:

“What I loved about ‘Stonewall and the Village’ was its jazzy immediacy, its knowing and rambling voice, its rambunctious details—all evoking a sense of being there, that place, that time. The Stonewall riots in New York in 1969 are said to have launched the gay liberation movement. But for the narrator of this memoir/essay, they are just the background to his life, the context of being young and brash and in the streets. Mrs. Dougherty is a fierce and chubby soul, and Terrence has four tits, and the black queen Nova carries a hammer for protection in Spanish Harlem. These characters seem perfectly real and cheerfully at home as the winds of cultural change swirl around them. The urban, name-dropping energy of Paul Thiel’s prose reflects and resonates with his subject matter, and this makes for a compelling read.”

++++++++– Sharman Apt Russell, author of Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and ++++++++Other New Ways of Engaging the World , the young adult novel Teresa of the New World, ++++++++and the forthcoming speculative fiction Knocking on Heaven’s Door (due this January, ++++++++2016).

Paul ThielPaul Thiel received his AB from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MS from the University of Montana. He decided that he would rather be a minor poet than a world-famous geologist, so on he went to San Francisco and the Haight Ashbury in the sixties, which inspired his play, Ode to the Queen Serene. Later, in New York, he published a long experimental poem in Extensions. He was a finalist for Columbia University’s Frank O’Hara Award, and gave a reading in the “Decadent Poets of NYC” series at Hunter College. Now, in St. Louis, he recently published and promoted a book of short stories by St. Louis writers, titled Under the Arch, and is currently working on autobiographical sketches.

Judy Bolton, Girl Detective, Girl Thief

I was six years old the first time I saw a mystery novel on my older cousin’s bookshelf with my own name, Judy Bolton, on the spine. I couldn’t stop my finger from tracing the letters boldly printed across the front of that hardcover book. I like to think my father chose the name for me for a reason, and that the appellation Girl Detective inspired me to construct my own clue-imbedded world.

Judy was a fictional detective in the 1930s and ’40s. She spied for the good of her family and community. Four decades later I took a different approach. Mine was a darker brand of sleuthing: I stole and manipulated my way into creating and solving mysteries, in part to get closer to learning about the secrets that lurked in my own house.

I was persistent, though never quite successful. Fictional Judy’s cases had neat endings, while my work was more of a scavenger hunt during which I stole objects that didn’t cohere into a full story for me. I went through my father’s wallet, thick with dry-cleaning slips, receipts and dollar bills. I pretended to smoke his fat, unlit Dutch Masters cigars, and tamped down tobacco in his pipes. When I flash back to Dad’s rack of pipes, silent and stony atop his highboy, I think of the artist Magritte. “This is not a pipe,” the Belgian surrealist wrote below his painting of a pipe. He called the work The Treachery of Images.

There were some deceptive images connected to my father, like the photograph of him in flowing khakis and a pith helmet, labeled Guatemala 1952. There was also the heart-shaped box stitched in red and blue, curiously soft and feminine, that stood out on his dresser. The box was another souvenir from Guatemala in which he kept a silver ring, serious and dense, stamped with his initials KHB, for K. Harold Bolton. I loved to spin that ring around my middle finger. I loved to put it under my pillow at night—a talisman that fueled my own imagined adventures.

My role as the girl detective also masked my role as a thief, a part I began to play in earnest at Edward Morley Elementary School in West Hartford, Connecticut. This was a school heavily populated with pretty Nancy Drews. I planted red herrings in their fifth grade classrooms, full of glitter and glue, to indicate there was a Frito Bandito at large.

I was the clever thief who knew what mattered most to my shiny pony-tailed classmates and gladly took it away from them. I was the phantom thief who struck after yet another birthday party or sleepover from which the Nancy Drews excluded me. In reality, I was short and chubby; I was the Spic ‘n’ Span Baby whose mother with the Cuban accent didn’t allow to walk home alone from school.

I kept some of their sweet little change purses and hand knit scarves and returned the rest, triumphantly, as if I had recovered them. Magritte’s pipe was not a pipe, and I was not a thief. At best, I was an indispensable sleuth; at worst, a slippery suspect in the eyes of my teachers.

When I had stolen all I could in school, I moved on to the most portentous place of all for me as a girl detective: my parents’ bedroom, a place filled with the soundless noise of too much stuff in too small a space. The bedroom was a staging area where I could perfect my thieving skills. I pocketed fake pearl necklaces and matching clip-on earrings from my mother’s vanity—a rickety desk she had transformed with speckled contact paper, gold trim and crepe skirting. It was as fancy as she was when she went out with my father on a Saturday night.

I rummaged through my mother’s closet, even though she made it clear that playing dress up in her best clothes was akin to stealing them. But I couldn’t help raiding her walk-in closet for slender high heels, sequined dresses and my father’s sister’s hand-me-down cashmere sweaters. That closet was an island of eternal twilight and forbidden possibilities. In particular, the very adult possibilities of love and beauty were embodied in a dress my mother bought from the Siegel Shop, a tony store in West Hartford Center. She carefully hung the beautiful fuchsia sheath she intended to wear to my uncle’s wedding in plastic wrapping. The sheath was delicately embroidered with roses and went over a long slip dress in a slightly darker hue. There were pointy, satin shoes dyed to match.

A few days before the wedding I stumbled around my parents’ bedroom trailing fuchsia and turning my ankle in the dyed heels until I came face to face with my father. He stood in the doorway, brown-eyed like me, staring with wonder and dread.

“Don’t let your mother see you in that dress,” he whispered.

It was the same tone he had when he came home from work, his tie undone, his shirtsleeves rolled up. “What kind of mood is your mother in?”

On those occasions we were co-conspirators.

My mother always aspired to have more, to be more. When she was seventeen, she wanted to be the first in her family to attend college. She struggled with an alcoholic father and depressed mother as she waged a fierce battle that left her slapped and bruised. But she saved enough money for bus fare and a Coca Cola to get to the University of Havana. On the first day of classes she registered for only one course with money my seamstress grandmother had skimmed from the household budget. When my mother met my father a few years later in New York, he exuded the financial success and social class she so desperately wanted, though that pipe dream disappeared once they were married.

*     *     *

As I went through Dad’s crowded drawers, I unearthed things as disparate as shot glasses from his Yale 1940 graduating class, pieces of Dentyne gum, golf tees, dehydrated snow globes picked up on family vacations, and outdated calendars from insurance and fuel companies. I found a package of condoms and a well-thumbed paperback of Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses.

I intently studied the unpaid bills my father piled on his dresser. I fanned through canceled checks carefully bundled in their original bank envelopes. I liked my father’s neat, primary school print so much that I kept random checks to start another collection of things that didn’t belong to me. I coveted his elegant check registry as large as a coffee table book. Its brown leather was embossed in gold with KHB. I paged through lists of checks my father recorded, searching for signs of the bankruptcy towards which my mother screamed we were headed. My father, an accountant who organized other people’s finances, oddly enough had little success marshaling his own.

Stashed in his sock drawer, I found elaborate budgets he worked up with words like mortgage and heat floating between asterisks. On pieces of cardboard that came from the dry cleaner with his freshly pressed shirts, he printed the names of stores my mother frequented in red capital letters. It was as if he was symbolizing that her shopping was bleeding us dry.

“The doctor can prescribe something else for your nerves,” my father murmured.

But shopping was a balm for my mother and me. On Saturday afternoons we ended up in downtown Hartford. My mother went to get her eyebrows waxed at G. Fox & Co., a utilitarian, yet elegant department store. When the elevator opened onto the eleventh floor, everything smelled of beauty. Afterwards we rode down on the escalators, stopping to buy sale dresses and support hosiery for my mother. Shopping at G. Fox came with the distinct privilege of bringing home the store’s crisp navy blue shopping bags. Yet my mother always pleaded poverty when I asked her to buy me something. Mamá no tiene dinero was her constant refrain. In response, I surveyed the terrain and stashed forty-fives or jewelry in the bags.

J.J. Newberry, a five and dime store, was easier to steal from. Newberry—all linoleum floors and plastic bins—had a hectic array of lipsticks and eye shadows through which we sifted. By the time I was interested enough to pocket makeup for myself, few of us from the suburbs still ventured downtown. One Saturday, I watched a pair of Puerto Rican girls, slick and confident, shoplifting nail polish and lip gloss from Newberry. Their technique was flawless. Their next move? To filch my mother’s wallet.

Mira esa vieja, que fea. Pero ella tiene plata.

They didn’t expect a lady fresh off the A1 bus from West Hartford to understand them. As soon as my mother turned around, they knew they had underestimated her and her ire over being called old and ugly. My mother pulled the hair of the younger teenager, who was just a year or two older than I. The older one ran away.

“Say it again,” my mother said. Dilo otra vez que yo soy vieja y fea, she said, crazed and up close to the girl’s round face, “and I will take you to the policia, you ladrona.

Though I never doubted my mother would turn me into the police, too, if she caught me stealing, I continued my petty larceny. I moved on to steal mostly drugstore makeup that I applied in the girls’ bathroom in junior high school. But as hard as I tried, I was not the effortless beauty my mother was. When I was little, I watched her put on her armor for a Saturday evening out. She began with a pointy bra and a heavy girdle with fasteners that snapped onto the reinforced tops of silky, shiny, shimmery stockings. She wore a glittery minidress and completed the ensemble with black boots that appeared as if they had been poured on her legs. She was the envy of my father’s friends with their plain older wives. And to me, she was simply the most beautiful woman in the world. “La mas linda della familia, said my besotted father.

I often spied into my parents’ bedroom though the sliver of light and space between the door and doorjamb. There was a twenty-year difference between them—a gulf, a bay, maybe the Bay of Pigs— but the age divide always vanished when they danced a smoked, stoked cha-cha in the blue noir of cigar smoke and the stink of beer. Later that night as my father pulled off my mother’s boots, Mom on the bed, dreamy and sleepy, whispered, “Too much dancing.”

*     *     *

Forty years later, my father has been dead for a decade. I am once again in my mother’s closet. I am once again a detective, a thief. The clues I’ve been collecting for a lifetime have led me to the recent discovery that my father had been on the ground helping to engineer a coup in Guatemala in 1952.

The Treachery of Images. Nothing is a coincidence.

Treachery may be an extreme word for my father’s silence about his time in the CIA, a secret he took to his grave. I wish he had entrusted me with the lives he lived before I was born. But I was the all-too-curious kid who stole, and I think he knew that.

Although, officially, I am looking for papers I requested to prove my mother is eligible for Dad’s veterans’ benefits, I am also on the lookout for any evidence of my father’s presence in Guatemala. My mother does not know Dad was in the CIA. How can I tell her my father wed her on an assignment? His mission was to place himself in Cuba and marrying a Cuban national seemed a natural way to do that. But history went awry and my mother became pregnant with me on her wedding night. My father had to sit out the Bay of Pigs.

*     *     *

My mother has on contact lenses. Her frameless face reflects her desire to capture her once-upon-a-time beauty. But her green eyes now float among broken blood vessels. She wears black flats and leans on a cane. She stares at me sprawled on the floor and I am instantly reduced to the little outlaw girl playing dress up in her mother’s closet. The little girl who appeared so much smaller when she wore her mother’s heels or glimpsed herself in the reflection in her father’s aviator sunglasses.

Que carajowhat the hell are you looking to take this time, Judy Bolton?” My mother uses my full, original name—my detective name—when she’s furious with me.

“I’m not sure.” All I know is I need to piece together a paper trail to prove she was married to Lieutenant Commander K. Harold Bolton. I’ve already written away for their marriage license the same way I filed a Freedom of Information Act for my father. But the CIA would neither confirm nor deny his affiliation with the agency.

I rifle through yellowed tax returns in brown accordion folders, financial information conveyed in Dad’s straightforward green-inked print. I sort through the uncharacteristically sugary, fancy long-ago birthday cards he liked to send us. I examine the credit card bills my mother accumulated from stores that are now shuttered. I hear my father’s echo: “The doctor can prescribe something for your nerves”

I steal a black and brown tweed shawl with a matching skirt. It’s a mid-century relic from my aunt, but Mom always wore it with verve and youth. I continue to rummage through the glamorous wreckage of clothes and the dust sends me on a coughing jag. This closet has become all past, with no touchstone to present or future.

I find the fuchsia sheath, tattered and streaked with neglect. The matching shoes are now stained; one of them has a broken heel. I can’t get the ragged slip over my chest, but I try anyway. My mother once starved to maintain her figure, never setting a place for herself at the kitchen table. Instead, she’d stand at the sink and eat scraps off our plates.

J.J. Newberry is gone, but the makeup we bought from its bins, now dried out and flaky, still crowds my mother’s ancient vanity. As a kid, I sat at that vanity, brushing circles of rouge on my cheeks and applying dark red lipstick until it looked like a scar slashed across my mouth.

The leather checkbook registry, stashed deep in my mother’s closet, is cracked. KHB—the initials once so stately and regal on its cover—are faded into near oblivion. It looks like time and condensation have blurred my father’s meticulous entries.

Just as Magritte declared his picture was not a pipe, this house is not the one in which I grew up. And yet the embroidered roses on my mother’s sheath—though wilted—are beautiful to me in the same way that a man who has loved a woman for decades stills sees her as young and pretty.

I fold the sheath and pack it with the shawl and skirt in a creased G. Fox bag. I grab some of the papers and cards, just to have my father’s inimitable handwriting near me again.

I still sleuth, I still steal.

I am, after all, Judy Bolton, girl detective and thief.

Judy Bolton-FasmanJudy Bolton-Fasman’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Rumpus, Salon, 1966: A Journal of Creative Non-fiction, Brevity, Cognoscenti and other venues. She has also written a memoir, currently unpublished, entitled “The Ninety Day Wonder.” Judy lives and writes with her family outside of Boston. Find her at  http://thewritewaytocollege.com and at http://thejudychronicles.com.

Sailing into Saigon

It’s still dark, 0500 on a December morning. From our ship out in the harbor we see the lights of San Diego sparkle on the horizon. We are excited by the lights. Because for so much of the last four months the horizon has merely blended with the blue of the ocean. Nearly one thousand of us—students, faculty, some family members—have been sailing around the world on a university study abroad program known as Semester at Sea. Now we’re coming home. It’s been a long voyage.

At 0500 a month earlier, we were entering another port, winding our way up the wide Saigon River on our way to Ho Chi Minh City. Our small cruise ship moved slowly, churned up the sandy river bottom. The sun was just starting to rise on our starboard side. It was foggy, which made the little fishing boats, with big slanting eyes painted on both sides of their swooping bows look eerie, like ghosts down there on the water, materializing out of the ethers.

We passed rice fields—all harvested by then—and miles and miles of jungle where the trees looked like they, too, were recently harvested. The trunks were spindly, the leaves wan and thin in many places. The sight of this sparse, sickly jungle made me sad. It made me want to say I’m sorry to the woman who poled the little painted boat being buffeted by the waves of our wake. It made me want to say I’m sorry to the family in the wobbly wooden house teetering between the trees and these muddy waters. Because as an American, I felt responsible.

I have no direct connection with the American War, as it is called in Vietnam, except that I grew up during the ’60s, was in high school in the early ’70s. Our government had stopped giving college deferments by then. Every one of my male classmates knew he’d get a draft notice along with his diploma. The war was like a pall.

In 11th grade English class, Mr. Trosan asked us to define irony. Some of us tried. Some of us were surprised when the stoner in the back of the room raised his hand. His sandy hair lapped at his collar bones. He wore dirty, faded blue jeans so long he walked on them, the hems all ratty and frayed. He slumped around school like he couldn’t care less about being there or what people thought about him. Sometimes I think teachers held his attitude against him. He was smart and they wanted him to care, wanted him to put forth some effort. But Monk’s hooded eyes were clear; he could already see what was waiting for him.

Mr. Trosan liked Monk. Mr. Trosan’s thinning hair hung over his ears too. A bushy mustache drooped over his lips, and he had a habit of playing with it with his tongue. Mr. Trosan lived down the hill from me and drove a little blue sports car. I saw his wife a couple of times. “Hippie” was what people thought when they saw her. She was tall and skinny and had very long, straight hair like Cher. She wore big glasses and bell-bottom blue jeans. I tried not to admire this couple. In my working class family, we weren’t supposed to like hippies. But I couldn’t help it; Mr. Trosan was one of the coolest teachers I ever had.

When Monk raised his hand, it was like Mr. Trosan knew he’d have the right answer. He held off calling on him to give the rest of us a stab at irony. When Mr. Trosan nodded at him, slouched in the back of the room, Monk twirled his pen around his fingers then flipped it into the book of O. Henry stories lying open on his desk. And here was his answer: “Irony,” he said, “is living through your tour in Vietnam and coming home and getting hit by a bus.” Wow, I thought, how did he know that? Behind his big mustache, Mr. Trosan just smiled.

I wish I could say I had been an anti-war activist. I wish I could say I had been a member of SDS and campaigned for George McGovern, even though I couldn’t vote. I wish I could say I had been informed and outraged and wrote letters to members of Congress and participated in protests down at the University. But the truth is, I didn’t pay attention to the war in Southeast Asia. Mine wasn’t the kind of family that had conversations around the dinner table about current events, or anything else for that matter; children were to be seen, not heard. My father had been in the Army for two years during the Korean Conflict. Even though he spent his whole tour of duty shoveling a pile of dirt from one side of the road to the other at an outpost in Germany, he still believed in the U.S. military. In high school, I just kept my head down, putting one foot in front of the other, hoping to get from one day to the next. I wasn’t supposed to have an opinion about my country’s little police action on the other side of the world.

It was The Deer Hunter, the 1978 film that won the Academy Award for best picture, that showed me what I missed. Three steelworkers from the same ethnic neighborhood near Pittsburgh, friends who went deer hunting every fall, who could bring down a deer in one shot, who got drafted and returned from the war changed, if they returned at all; Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep; the contrast between those two rites of passage, marriage and military service, and what happens to a man when he learns to bring down people in one shot and to play Russian roulette. The movie made me a pacifist. It shocked me. It saddened me. It angered me. In part because of the political message, yes, but the thing that pushed that message in under my skin was that I knew those people. I grew up in Pittsburgh. Those guys shooting shots at the bar were just like my cousins. I had driven by that Russian Orthodox Church, or one very like it, and those streets were my streets. My grandfathers were both steelworkers. Half the men in my town wore steel-toed shoes and hard hats and clomped off to the mill every morning with identical black lunch buckets. Guys in my class thought that the first day of deer season was a school holiday.

Decades later, in graduate school, I would learn that the most effective teaching tool for changing someone’s attitude is film. I was a nurse then, and the teacher was talking about changing how people thought about their health: how to get teenage girls to believe that doing self breast exams would keep them from dying of cancer; how to get diabetic patients to commit to pricking their finger, testing their blood sugar six times a day, and shooting themselves with insulin. But I thought about The Deer Hunter—the guy from down the street who danced at my cousin’s wedding and came back from ’Nam without any legs—and I knew this teacher was telling the truth.

So as I sailed in that cruise ship up the Saigon River in the early morning fog, seeing the jungle that forty years ago my country turned to hell with napalm, I imagined what it might have been like for guys like Monk to prowl these waters in a navy patrol boat with two fifty-caliber rotating machine guns mounted on the bow, a grenade launcher on the stern, and two crewmembers poised on the deck, pointing M-50 automatic assault rifles toward the shore; and I wondered why those people in their little painted boats were waving at us. Don’t they hate us, I wondered? Don’t they hold a grudge against these selfish Americans who destroyed their land, their villages, their country, because we just couldn’t let the Commies take another pawn?

But here’s the irony: we sailed up the Saigon River waving at all those people in pointy straw hats, armed with oars, rowing little boats with eyes on the bows. But a month later, as our journey around the world ends and we sail into San Diego, our home port, the boats that greet us really are those patrol boats, and the men in military fatigues, standing on the deck brandishing automatic weapons, are U.S. Coast Guard. None of the soldiers in those boats are waving to us. For more than two hours, these armed patrol boats circle our ship and escort us all the way from the mouth of the harbor to the pier where our ship will dock. Maybe I’m just disoriented from being abroad for four months, touring countries where we knew we weren’t safe, where we knew we didn’t have rights. But right now my skin is prickling and I don’t get this. Why is the U.S. Coast Guard riding around our little ship full of college students and professors, pointing their guns at us like we’re the enemy? We’re Americans. This is our home. Shouldn’t they be welcoming us?

Then I think of Monk, the stoner who couldn’t care less, who just wanted to get high, because who wouldn’t with war in his future? What if he were here, standing at the rail on deck seven of our ship as we approached this city, this American city; this place we think we know; this place we think is all about freedom and justice; this place where we think we don’t have to worry about our government coming after us with guns because we stand for liberty? What would Monk be thinking if he were standing here, in his ratty blue jeans, his long hair flying in the wind, watching these guys in fatigues circle our ship in a patrol boat armed with automatic weapons? I think I know. I think he’d shake his shaggy head at the irony of it all and turn away. “Fuck it, man,” he’d say. “It’s all a game, and we’re the pawns.”

Linda KobertLinda Kobert teaches creative writing in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Southern Maine. Her creative work has appeared in Postcard Poetry & ProseSmall Spiral NotebookAnnalemma, and Spirituality and Health, and she has had several essays broadcast on a local NPR affiliate. She also reads submissions for the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction and serves as prose editor for Hospital Drive magazine.

Oranges

It’s terrible when you’re defeated by a bag of oranges.

The oranges were just a purchase, one of many at the supermarket. It was such a tiny act, so lost in the millions of ordinary tasks of the day that I don’t remember the details. Maybe it was Tuesday and raining, or Thursday and annoyingly sunny as usual. Maybe I had bought the oranges in some futile effort to be healthier. Though it was clear to me, by then, that it was pointless, and too late, and that I should just be eating chocolate and blowing my savings on frivolous things like cruises and tiaras, or if I liked that sort of thing, whiskey, and cigarettes, and hookers.

What I wonder now is, why would a 32-year-old single woman, who lived alone, and who was dying, buy a five-pound bag of oranges?

Perhaps I wasn’t thinking.

Perhaps I was in denial.

Perhaps I meant to share them.

But I can’t imagine whom I meant to share them with. Even my closest friends and the most well-meaning of people made me tired. All I wanted to do was sleep all the time. The pain had made me antisocial, paranoid, and sensitive.

Whom would I have shared the oranges with when I was in such a state?

By the time the oranges began to bother me, they were as far away as my feet, which  might as well have been like reaching down to the center of the earth. I knew the inner core was there, soft and gooey like the candy center of a Tootsie Pop, but I couldn’t reach it.

How tall had I become?

I wondered how many thousands of feet had I grown. I was like Alice, who in Wonderland, had been tempted by a piece of cake and that clever little famous sign—those simple sinister words begging out to little girls, “eat me.”

But I wasn’t a foolish little girl tempted by candy from strangers. I hadn’t grown the same way Alice had. I wasn’t busting out of The White Rabbit’s house. I wasn’t in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass. I was just five feet four, here on Earth, where the center of the world was on fire, full of magma burning as hot as the sun, and I knew the best part of anything, that gooey-candy-center of life, was just out of my reach.

Tensile as glass, I had been replaced by the mirror image of myself. I worried that if I was not careful in my movements, I might shatter. How many months had it been since I had touched my toes or bought the oranges? How many months since I placed those oranges in the drawer at the bottom of the refrigerator? How many months had they laughed at me?

How many months could I smell the stink of them?

Six at least,

—or more?

Death seemed slow and inevitable, as natural to me as the tiny lines forming around my eyes. Everyone gets wrinkles. Everyone dies, but the decay of the oranges seemed unnatural. Their demise seemed so much more rapid than my own—so much more graphic—oranges that in any normal context could be something else entirely.

Have you ever really thought about eating an orange?

I once saw a beautiful woman sitting in the sun of a Spanish courtyard in Santa Fe. She stretched her young body out on a wooden bench. She delicately crossed her long legs.

She knew how to eat an orange.

She gently peeled back the thick rind, caressing its thin

—naked skin—

beneath,

as if she were about to make love to it.

Slowly, she pulled it apart,

—tenderly pulled loose a perfect piece,

++++—and bit into it passionately as if biting the neck of a lover.

Have you ever really thought about eating an orange?

She let its juices dribble down her chin, down her neck, down her wrist. She was unapologetic about this. Most polite people would have reached for a napkin, but she just ran her hands up the side of her neck, trying to experience it one last time, before she licked her fingers clean. She let what was left grow sticky on her face in the hot sun. Afterwards, she smelled the peelings, pleased with the scent of them.

She was satisfied.

How long had it been since I had been so satisfied with anything? How long had it been since I had known oranges the way a young woman should?

Sweet.

++—and ripe.

++++—and fresh.

How long had it been, since I had been in love? If I ever had been in love, then I had forgotten. How long since I had felt passion, or an orgasm, or even been laid?

—But the oranges I knew were not like food. They were not like making love. They were not even like a one-night stand, which one might later regret. They were like death. I had forgotten what food was like, or love, or even sex. All I knew was those oranges were slowly decaying, just out of reach, and all I could do was watch.

They watched me back.

We watched each other rot like two old men in a life raft marooned in the middle of the ocean. Each of us annoyed the other’s slow demise. But I was not in the ocean. I was not an old man. I was not even an orange. I was a young woman who had slowly given up on asking for help.

I saw those oranges one last time when I got home from work that night—hours before quitting time, on a double overnight shift, at the hospital where I didn’t even have insurance. I had been working as a nursing assistant in hospitals throughout the state, but as my illness became worse, I had settled into a job at the rehab center five years earlier. Every day I helped other bodies become healthier, as mine decayed just a little more.

My last night of work, a co-worker named Hilda called the charge nurse, “Cruzita,” she said, “I’m really worried about Candice. She’s so pale. I don’t know if she should be working.”

Cruzita was the physical embodiment of the perfect woman I had grown up reading about by poets like Jimmy Santiago Baca. She had in fact married a Chicano poet, and had entire pages written about her, but my own need to be a writer made her uncomfortable. My own independence—the way I resisted the norm and always insisted on doing things my own way—exhausted her.

I was a single woman who had dared to date men young enough to be Cruzita’s son, I was an artist, and I lived alone. We were two hard-working women with strong and unending convictions in how we lived our lives. But as much as we didn’t get along, and as much as we both spent a great deal of effort patronizing each other, she sent me home that night, to rest, without harassing me about my illness like many of my other supervisors had.

I remembered our conflicts when I got home. I wanted a glass of water, but I had neglected the contents of my refrigerator; mold floated at the top of my Brita pitcher. I gave up and shut the door. It was the last time I saw those oranges.

I thought about how Cruzita and I struggled not to bicker and fight. I wondered if we would ever understand each other. I would probably never see any of the people I worked with again. It made me a little sad that she and I would be frozen in time, neither of us ever able to transcend our expectations of the other.

My outside appearance was suspended in that moment. But on the inside, I had aged centuries. In my early twenties, I had once gone to the Petrified Forest, on the New Mexico/Arizona Border. Over the centuries, those trees had turned to stone: striated rocks that, as a young woman, I once held in my hands. How many centuries had I been the petrified woman, both terrified and turning to stone? Like Susan Sontag said, “Time works differently in the kingdom of the well than in the kingdom of the sick.” Within a year’s time of an ordinary life, my insides had fossilized for eons into something not much different from all those miles of dead trees stretched out across the desert.

I was nothing more than a monument, chipped by steady hands into stone. In the kingdom of the well, this statue had begun to replace me. I only existed on the other side of living, where the natural world seemed like nothing more than an echo. I could see it in the eyes of men—the way they would try to make eye contact, the way they thought I was still a young woman:

ripe,       and ready,     and free.

I slunk gingerly out of my scrubs and went to bed. I had become sicker than my patients.

It was Sunday night. I should have been working. I should have been wherever in life I chose to be, but instead I had fallen out of time and space. I was back at my apartment, which like the oranges was a testament to the truth.

Exhausted, I pulled my stone body up the steep stairs that led to my bedroom and bathroom. I dragged myself by my thousand-pound stone feet. With great effort, I bent my stone legs over the lip of the bathtub, so I could take a shower. Then I fell graciously into my unmade bed. I slept restlessly, marinating in my own sweat. My sheets stank like the oranges, they stank like me, they stank like death, but I was too tired to care.

In the book Jesus’ Son, a hitchhiker gets into a car that he knows, by some supernatural intuition, is going to get into a fatal accident, but he’s so cold from sleeping by the side of the road, in the rain, that he doesn’t care. He just wants to be warm, and in the backseat of the car, even if it means he might never wake up.

It didn’t occur to me, as I slipped under the dirty covers, that it wasn’t normal to go to bed if I wasn’t sure if I would ever wake up. It wasn’t normal to be so tired that I didn’t care if I lived. I didn’t realize I was going into shock.

It was my heartbeat that, after three years of confusion, finally woke me up.

The POUNDING, POUNDING, POUNDING, that I knew at once wasn’t right.

140, 180, or more beats a minute.

Too many to count.

Too many beats for a        single heart        to bear        alone.

But I was not an orange. I was not a statue. I was a woman whose heart should not be pounding so loudly she couldn’t sleep. I was a young woman who needed to get to a hospital and get an EKG because she thought she was having a heart attack.

It was my heartbeat that, after three years of confusion, finally woke me up.

But I couldn’t get out of bed, because I couldn’t move my stone leg. It was as if someone was pushing me down. And I sank like dead weight into my memory foam mattress. And I started to feel suffocated. And for the first time I panicked, which didn’t help my heart.

It    is    absurd where

your   mind   goes       when you start    to          lose it

—the kind of   insane thoughts  you    grab    onto     for clarity when your mind begins to

Float

Like     these words.

Some TV show doctor’s voice comes to you. Some faceless “authority” who’s the star of some storyline you don’t even remember. Some impractical super show like ER, or House, or Grey’s Anatomy with make-believe hospitals where no one thinks to put a sick patient’s bed rails up, no matter how confused they are—and even the sickest patients are perfectly symmetrical, beautiful, and thin.

What was it the not-real doctor said to that not-real patient?

Something about how a broken femur could leak bone marrow into your blood stream and can cause heart problems. I had been waiting—for some bizarre epiphany—from a lunatic idea of a fake doctor—that my leg was broken—just to pay attention. I worked in a rehab hospital where I taught patients, with broken hips, to get out of bed. I knew how to get out of bed with a stone leg. If I tried, I could get to the hospital, and try to save my sorry-ass-stone-life.

What I didn’t know—as I planned my escape—was that an abscess had formed in my right torso. My kidney—to fight back—was turning to stone—and a strange mass was shoving my kidney into my spine—until the stone had pressed against my spine—and everywhere my body was fighting everything with pus, and blood, and fluid. My whole torso was so ready to pop that even my right leg was filling up with what infection the rest of me could no longer hold.

In that moment, I was grateful for my experiences in healthcare. I was grateful for what I knew of moving patients. I was grateful for my understanding of moving stone people from one place to another. I was grateful for knowing how to get my stone-self out of bed.

I pushed with my left leg, and used my arms to drag my sheet to the side of the bed. I tilted with the left. I took a deep breath, and risked letting my feet fall to the floor. I was grateful for being stiff as stone. I was grateful that, unlike noodles, statues could stand. I dragged my right foot by pulling my pant leg forward.  My toes caught on the carpet—like a zombie—like walking—like the still-living dead.

I cursed myself for leaving my cell phone in the car, and hoped I wouldn’t fall down the stairs. I threw my weight from side to side, as I held onto the wall and rail, dragging my stiff right leg. It landed with a thud down each step.

There was clean laundry on the dryer downstairs, but I had no idea what to pack.

How could I pack when I didn’t know if I was ever coming home? What shoes could I get on my swollen football-feet—football-feet I couldn’t even reach? What bag could I carry when I could not even carry myself?

In Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, the mother packs a family of six for a missionary trip to the Congo. Orleana, a preacher’s wife—in 1959—tries so hard with everything she knows of the world—to be prepared—and fails miserably. She packs Betty Crocker cake mixes for her four daughters’ birthdays without knowing what it is like to not have a stove. Everything she thought she would need seems so brightly ornamental and useless against the mud hut walls. She would eventually leave her husband in Africa to save her children from the uncertainties of the jungle.

I realize now, despite all my experience in the healthcare field, I didn’t know anything more about being sick, than Orleana Price did about Africa. There was no way to properly prepare for it, and all the Betty Crocker cake mixes in the world wouldn’t have helped.

I should have taken a pillow and a blanket for the sixteen-hour emergency room wait. Had I known I would be there for a month, I would have thought of something to entertain myself, so my mind would not have floated so much in morphine-induced-limbo (where I would still be in pain, but be too strung out to care).

I should have taken a wide-toothed comb, shampoo, conditioner, and detangler, because a woman who has long hair, and is hospitalized, will have so many tangles that by the time she gets home the first thing she will want to do is shave her head.

But who knows these things, really knows them, until they have experienced them?

That night, all I knew was I feared nothing would be fixed. I feared like all the other doctors I had seen, no one would try to help me, even if I asked for help. I feared that after so long in the waiting room, and crying my eyes out to one more doctor, I would be even more exhausted, and there would be nothing left to do except come home to the oranges, write my will, and wait.

I wanted to be strong enough to defeat this beast on my own, but I had failed. I had failed in being independent, and I had failed in my ability to ask for help, and I knew I would fail my family by not knowing how to live. I would die young, and unnecessarily, and foolishly, and this pain and emptiness would be my only legacy to them.

But I didn’t go home to the oranges. I had the best emergency room doctor in the world. I lived because a doctor cared enough to personally run in terrified when I started throwing-up, even though it had become normal for me. She was the kind of doctor who refused to go home until she found someone to help me. And she was the kind of doctor who came upstairs, the next night, to make sure I was okay, once I had been admitted.

I stayed in the hospital where I belonged, where none of my possessions would help me, without even a shirt on my back. I watched my mother become frantic and take away what few belongings I had thought to bring with me, because she was so worried someone would steal my things while I was sleeping (and once I was finally settled in, I was almost always sleeping).

I learned to laugh at what absurd things she would bring me as I began to need clothes again. I asked for a T-shirt and she would bring me a tight fitting low-cut blouse. I wondered why she would think that’s what I wanted, and I would learn to love her for trying so hard.

I would soon learn to live without things I never thought possible to live without: a bra or underwear, my health, my mind, coffee shops, reading, writing, or anything I had felt were the things I loved and knew of myself. I would learn to let go of my fears and my attachments the way Orleana Price learns to let go of making her daughters’ birthday cakes.

I had to understand none of the things I might liked to have had with me would have done much good. I still had to let not only the doctors, and nurses, and techs, and hospital staff, help me, but my family, and friends, strangers, and even people I didn’t like, help me. I still had to hand my keys over to my mother, and let her drive my car away from the patient parking lot to my empty apartment. I had to let others clean and sift through my remains—to rearrange for me what I could not do for myself. I would have to allow others to enter my home as one would enter the homes of the dead.

I waited to find out what kind of surgery I might need, and I waited to find out how sick I was. While I waited, sleepy-minded on too much morphine, my little brother would have do for me what I could not do for myself. He would have to go into my abandoned apartment, after another week of ripening, and throw away those damned oranges.

Candice CarnesCandice Carnes worked as a caregiver for over fifteen years. This piece is an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir An Incomplete Case Study of the Petrified Woman. She earned a BFA in writing from Goddard College and is currently a graduate student in Science-Medical Writing at Johns Hopkins University. She also serves on the board of directors for the New Mexico Direct Caregivers Coalition. You can find out more about her writing at: candicecarnes.com

Tackle Box

“I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.”
—Ecclesiastes 7:26

Some interstate in the south. I’m around seven. We’ve been in the car for hours—en route to Irmo, a suburb outside Columbia, SC so Dad can take classes at USC to become an officer in the Marines. We’re in his sporty black Nissan; my mom and younger sisters, Jenna and Katie, are in the brown and yellow station wagon behind us. Bart is barely a kidney bean in Mom’s belly. I press my forehead to the cool window and watch my reflection superimposed over the trees rushing by. It gets dark and dad asks me if I want to talk to the truckers on the CB radio.  He picks up the mouthpiece and rotates the channel dial. Voices crackle over the speaker. They sound like aliens speaking a garbled foreign language. “Watch this,” he winks at me, then presses the receiver and starts to lisp in falsetto, I feel pretty, oh so pretty, oh so pretty, and witty, and gaaaaaaaayyyyy… This usually gets a response from one or two truckers. “What’s your twenty?” a voice wavers across the radio.  They want to know where we are, what highway, what car. Sometimes we talk to them until their signal gets too fuzzy. Sometimes they yell at my dad and he laughs so hard tears roll down his cheeks and he has to turn the channel before I hear too many profanities. “You do it,” he nudges me with the speaker. I don’t know what to say, and whisper a timid, questioning, “Hi?” into the crackling space. Sometimes the truckers will talk to me, tell me about their kids back home. Other times they tell my dad to get me the hell off the radio. In those moments I’m aware, as young as I am, that we’re intruders in their world.  Then one calls me “honey” and “pretty thing,” and says he likes the softness in my voice. My insides rustle and it’s like I’ve dipped my toes into warm water. My dad snaps off the CB. “That’s enough of that.”

We listen in silence to the radio, stare forward as the yellow lines of the road roll like a conveyor belt beneath our car. When Hall & Oates comes across Dad turns up the radio, drums his fingers on the steering wheel, sings along wistfully:

She’ll only come out at night,
The lean and hungry type,
Nothing is new,
I’ve seen her here before…

I watch his face flashing in the darkness, lit up by the headlights of passing cars like someone’s opening and closing shutters. He’s not laughing anymore. He’s serious about this song, I can tell.

Oh-oh here she comes.
Watch out boy she’ll chew you up.
 Oh-oh here she comes.
She’s a man-eater.

“What’s a man-eater?” I ask him. It sounds dangerous. My eyes try to penetrate the woods outside the windowso much darkness pressing in. I imagine some she-monster with yellow eyes stalking our car from the bushes. Dad replies solemnly, eyes straight ahead, “A woman every man wants.” I am still riding the high of the power I felt with that last trucker—his desire to know more about me, a need so dangerous my dad had to silence him. I wonder if somehow that trucker has left his route, tracked us down, is following behind us, waiting for us to pull over. The thought gives me another warm thrill—but scares me, too. I scoot across the seat to Dad, lean my head on his shoulder, and he takes one hand off the steering wheel and squeezes my knee. Man-eater. Whomever or whatever she is, she has inspired a man to write a song about her, to long for her, to make other men like my father ache for her. I know right then and there what I want to be when I grow up. A man-eater.

Every time I looked in the mirror, though, I knew I was decidedly not a man-eater—not yet, anyway. Man-eaters, the kind I came to see on the big screen and on magazine covers, did not have stringy red hair or freckles or glasses. And the teeth they used to chew up and spit out men were straight and blindingly white. My teeth looked more like those belonging to a Venus fly trap. The bottom row turned every which way but straight, and my left and right incisors had grown in at an angle, overlapping the front two teeth like fangs. Sometimes the kids at school pretended I was a vampire, raced away from me as if I might suck blood from their necks.

I know right then and there what I want to be when I grow up. A man-eater.

It only added injury to insult that my mother was a real life beauty queen. At eighteen, she had had been crowned Miss Ligonier, the trophy of which was displayed prominently on the bookshelf of every living room in every house into which we moved. It was a gold figurine about the same size as a Barbie, on its head a crown and in its hands a scepter. The scepter was about the size of a sewing needle and slid into a hole in the trophy’s fist. It wasn’t supposed to be removable. Jenna and I used to take the trophy down from its bookcase and stroke its hard, gold dress. Eventually, we loosened the scepter and found we could take it from her hands. We gave it to our Barbies until Mom found out and yelled at us. Tears brimmed in her eyes as she cradled the trophy, trying to fix it. After that, she kept the trophy out of our reach.

My father was convinced that every man wanted her so he watched over her jealously. His fears were not unfounded. Once at a Kmart, when she was pushing my baby brother in the cart and we sisters were trailing behind her like ducks on a string, a young marine, probably no older than eighteen or nineteen, touched her on the shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just had to tell you that I think you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.” I was probably around nine and this was the most impressive thing I had seen. “Look at your mother, girls,” Dad would say to us, gazing up at her with hungry eyes while she’d fill our plates at dinner. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

And she was. But she didn’t wake up that way. We knew her secret: the orange tackle box. For the better part of the day that she spent vacuuming floors, dusting cabinets, and folding laundry, she was downright plain—thick, red hair gathered into a tight bun like a knob on the top of her head, small eyes fading into a pale and freckled face. But an hour before Dad came home, Mom would stop whatever household chore she was attending to and head up to her bathroom where, under the cabinet, she stored a fisherman’s tackle box. The contents of that tacklebox were magic, invoking into being the beauty queen hiding inside my mother. Where men might separate lures, lines, and hooks into each compartment, Mom had neatly arranged row after row of eye shadows, mascaras, and lipsticks. I’d lean against the doorframe of her bathroom and watch as she’d “put on her face.” First there was the pale, almost white concealer she’d dab under her eyes, then the liquid foundation she’d swirl across her cheeks, forehead, and chin. Next, powder and a sweep of pink blush. She’d lean into the mirror, carefully swipe blue eye shadow across each eyelid, step back, examine her work, lean in again to fill in creases. Next the eyelash curler, a stroke of eyeliner, a flourish of mascara. She’d brush out her eyebrows and pencil them in so her dark, almond-shaped eyes slowly emerged as if coaxed.

But the most magical part of the tackle box was the assortment of lipstick tubes piled in two or three of the compartments and organized by shade. All shades of red, they touted names like “Cherry Lush,” “Ruby Dream,” “Scarlett Empress,” “Femme Fatale.” I loved running my fingers over the smooth tubes, removing their caps, rolling up colors so deep and rich my mouth watered. First she’d line her lips, drawing in a fuller pout on bottom, a cupid’s bow on top. Then she’d choose a lipstick and drag it slowly across, back and forth, press her lips together, and repeat. Again, she’d step back from the mirror, survey her reflection, dissatisfied, rummage through the tackle box for something to right it. Lean in again, fix the mistakes. With each sweep, stroke, and blot, ho-hum servant girl slowly transformed into Cinderella. What I wanted more than anything was to look like her when I grew up.

Indeed, it was this beauty regimen alone that kept me from climbing onto a chair and tying a rope around my neck. That she could transform herself so completely gave me hope every time I looked in the mirror at my own plain-Jane face and straight-as-a-board body (“You’re a pirate’s dream,” my dad joked. “A buried chest”). Still, I assured my friends that the story of the Ugly Duckling was my own. My mother was proof; of course I’d inherited her genes. Plus all five of my dad’s sisters were beautiful and his own mom was so gorgeous she’d been married six times. How could it turn out otherwise for me? Friends of my parents concurred when they’d come over for dinner and I’d skip downstairs on break from playing dress-up, my adolescent face inexpertly plastered with lipstick and eye shadow. “You’re in trouble,” the men would elbow my dad and wink, “Get your gun ready.” I’d blush, pleased.

And, eventually, it happened, with the assistance of puberty and its helpful side-kick, Cover Girl. Each morning, I woke up early to put on my own face, jostling with my sister, Jenna, for real estate in front of the bathroom mirror. By then, I didn’t need a tackle box as some marketing genius had created Caboodles, essentially a tackle box but in appropriately girly pink and purple. Because it was too big to carry to school, I dumped its essentials into a plastic pencil pouch that I stuffed into my backpack. As soon as I got to school, I dashed to the bathroom to check that my makeup had remained in place during the harrowing thirty-minute bus ride. I repeated this process in each of the ten-minute breaks between class, joining the line of teenage girls who were also reapplying their lipstick and eyeliner, brushing their hair, and otherwise checking for any break in the surface that might betray us to the boys.

The boys were the thing.  The thrill of knowing we were desired was like static electricity coursing through our veins. Every moment of our teenage years became a pageant. Friday nights my dad would drop a group of neighborhood girls at the mall and we’d treat it like a catwalk until it closed at nine: strut around the top floor, then take the escalator and sashay around the bottom, then ride the escalator back up and start over. We never actually talked to these boys. It seemed to us they spoke an entirely different language, one composed of guttural grunts and groans. It was enough to glide past them in their huddled masses and feel the hush our presence caused. Sometimes one would break the silence, whistle or moan, or another would lick his lips, a lascivious “niiiice” unrolling from his tongue like a carpet at our feet. Without speaking a word to them, we possessed the power to interrupt their compact and gated world, to make their heads swivel in our directions, to command their bodies to straighten and stiffen, to invoke the gazes that caressed the length of our emerging curves. Sometimes as we swept by they’d collapse into each other like sailors thrown about by the force of a wave; we imagined them set adrift, desperate, clinging to the hope that we might turn and save them. We thought the most romantic thing in the world was to be desired from afar, a belief confirmed and encouraged by any number of love songs our boom boxes crooned—“Lady in Red,” “Jesse’s Girl,” “Private Eyes,” “Every Step You Take.”

It wasn’t just teenage boys wanting us, though. On nights we couldn’t pester a parent to drive us to the mall, we made do with the gravel catwalk alongside the main road beyond our houses. We were allowed to walk only as far as a stop sign at the corner. Still, we’d saunter down and back, down and back, practicing our swagger. The point was simply the thrill of the horns beeping as cars slowed down, adult men hanging their heads out the window like dogs, calling to us “baby” or “honey” or “sugar lips.” Sometimes they’d slow down too much, as if intending to pull over. We didn’t know what to do, had no plan for desire that materialized itself into an actual encounter, especially not with a mustached man, so we’d giggle and run into the grass, feeling safe behind the wood fence posts that separated our backyards from the street. And we mostly were.

The truth is, we didn’t really understand this “power” we had inherited with our bodies, with being born female. We, too, felt set adrift—without anchor or direction, our bodies like rafts floating on some vast sea in which we were told lurked all species of danger. Somewhere on this sea there was safety, an island paradise called marriage. All we knew was we had to get there, and in one piece. Not broken. Not damaged. But we were provided no oars, no compass. Sure, we were given “direction,” of a sort, but it was like being handed a map to use on an ocean with no landmarks. Our school counselors and health teachers talked to us all the time about how to “just say no,” and our fathers guarded our virtue like border police. Then, too, there were the sermons. Church elders constantly lectured us about what to do with male desire should it ever present itself in a tangible way: run. Our bodies did not belong to us, but to our fathers on earth and our father in heaven; one day, if we were lucky, they’d belong to our husbands. Our bodies were temples, they told us. But temples need worshippers, or else they’re just empty buildings.

There were plenty of worshippers at church. The churches to which we belonged were of the evangelical brand, notable for their populations of zealous converts who’d led sad and seamy lives before being lit on fire by Jesus. In one church, our youth group leaders were two handsome young men both of whom had been male strippers. In fact, our pastor had been a pimp, his wife a prostitute about whom he told stories of beating before he found his way to the Lord. Their wives were dour-faced women, saddled by arms full of infants and diaper bags and clung to by toddlers with sticky fingers; they scowled at us when we ran up to hug their husbands after service. We ignored them. Those hugs were soft, and warm, their husbands’ beards scratching our cheeks, musky cologne pressing into our noses and lungs. Every Sunday I looked forward to the five minutes the pastor would take from the sermon so we might greet and hug those in adjacent pews. Jenna and I positioned ourselves strategically so we’d be sitting directly beside, in front of, or behind the boys or men we most liked to hug. “You give such nice hugs,” I remember one growling in my ear as he pulled me into an embrace; something inside me clenched with pleasure. All of this, of course, under and approved by my father’s watchful eyes.

In another church, our youth ministers were recovering alcoholics who would talk to us about why we should wait for marriage to have sex and tell us how hard it would be since many men would, of course, want us so badly. They’d refer vaguely but wistfully to the girls they had “ruined” before their conversion. After group prayer, we teens would play capture the flag in the parking lot, while our illustrious leaders would guard the bases, keeping us warm when we arrived there by hugging us to them or rubbing our hands between their palms. One of them was enraptured with a fourteen-year-old friend of mine whom he nicknamed “Face” because, he said, she was so pretty. It hurt my feelings that he only called me “Red,” tribute to the much-maligned color of my hair and decidedly not my beauty. “Too bad I’m too old for you,” he’d tell my friend, hugging her to him, or, he’d wink, lift her chin up to his face, cluck approvingly, “Trouble. Trouble. Trouble.” Eventually, he started dating a woman in the choir and shortly thereafter began to ignore us; when he resigned from youth group, we felt betrayed and whispered loudly about his new wife’s snaggle-toothed smile and pointy chin when she passed us in the pews. We were certain she had cast some spell on him, forced him to abandon us.

There were also the men who’d show up for the first time on a Sunday morning, sit behind us in the pews, and afterwards ask if they could call. We’d give them our numbers, knowing they’d never get past our dads who would ask them how old they were. Once, but only once, Jenna called one of them up herself and he showed up at our house on a Saturday while my parents were out shopping. She was thirteen, he twenty-eight. I wouldn’t let him into the house, so Jenna met him on the porch instead. I watched them through the blinds as they kissed. It was the kind of kissing inexperienced kissers do, tongues battling in the hollow of wide and motionless mouths. Jenna came back inside, flushed. “He said I was jail-bait,” she confided. “What does that mean?” I didn’t know.

I was fifteen when I French-kissed for the first time. It happened while watching Road House in a movie theater with a nineteen-year-old named Eric. My friend Sandy, who my mother complained was “fast,” had set me up with him; I’d met Sandy at church and Eric was her ex. They’d already had sex. I was supposed to be at a sleepover at Sandy’s, but instead I’d let Eric pick me from her house and take me on a date. He kissed me as soon as the lights went out in the theater, pressing me against the hard-backed seat and spilling my popcorn onto the sticky floor. He tasted like cigarettes and beer, though I didn’t know it at the time. The second time I snuck out with Eric, we made out in the back of his mother’s car during a Fourth of July party. We stretched out on the backseat while Boys to Men played on the radio, but I wouldn’t let him slip his hands up my shirt or beneath the waistband of my shorts. It was hot inside the car and he was frustrated, so after awhile we went back to the party and he disappeared into the crowd, leaving me alone to wander the yard among strangers. Everyone was drunk; his mother offered me a Budweiser, and I carried it around, not drinking it, letting it sweat in my palm. I retreated inside, where dirty dishes were piled on the counter and the carpet smelled of dogs; upstairs the toilet was stained brown with rust. In the bathroom mirror I practiced my smile. It felt quivery and loose, like it might slide off. I called Sandy from the phone in the kitchen and her mom picked me up. I told her my stomach hurt.

Eric didn’t call me after that, although I did see him one more time. It was in a McDonald’s after I’d been canoeing with the youth group. I had fallen in the water; my clothes were dirty, my hair scraggly, and my make-up melted in rivulets down my cheeks. I had just paid for my milkshake when I turned around to see Eric. He nodded at me and I rushed past him, embarrassed by my Alice Cooper appearance. Later, referring to my appearance, he told Sandy that he had dodged a bullet. Eric was a high-school drop out and an alcoholic. His tongue had felt thick and dry in my mouth, his fingers calloused. I was an honors student and, except for my brief flirtation with lying to my parents about my whereabouts, morally irreproachable. But his assessment of my worth was all that mattered.

What was “real” anyway, I reasoned. What was identity? Isn’t identity unstable? Always shifting? Isn’t that how we decenter power? I used my courses in feminism and philosophy to rationalize the fact that there wasn’t really any “me” to begin with. “I” was a series of constructs, an assemblage of parts I could compartmentalize, rearrange, brush on and, just as easily, strip away.

If I had been careful before about making sure to put my face on before I went in public, I now became a zealot. With boyfriends in college, I woke up early to sneak into the bathroom to reapply whatever makeup had worn off overnight. I bought only waterproof makeup in the summer and didn’t go under the water lest what wasn’t waterproof wash off. If a man didn’t desire me, I read it as a sign that I needed to procure whatever lure would bait him. Perhaps my hair needed to be less red. Or more. Perhaps my green eyes should be blue. Or purple. Or turquoise (a smitten eye doctor supplied me with six months supply of colored lenses for free). For many years I was convinced it was my pale skin and freckles (a suspicion initiated by a fellow student’s remark in high school that I would be “even more hot” with a tan). When I suffered one too many sunburns trying to tan my tender Scotch-Irish skin, I switched to lotions and sprays which left me orange—but which was better than pale. For a time, I wore pantyhose under shorts because I was so embarrassed by my pasty legs. One night, I looked in the mirror and realized that everything about me was fake—bleached hair, colored contacts, painted lips, acrylic nails, spray-tanned skin, adhesive eyelashes, waist-cinching corset, padded bra, platform heels. I was a fraud. False-advertising.

But by then I was taking classes in poststructuralist theory. What was “real” anyway, I reasoned. What was identity? Isn’t identity unstable? Always shifting? Isn’t that how we decenter power? I used my courses in feminism and philosophy to rationalize the fact that there wasn’t really any “me” to begin with. “I” was a series of constructs, an assemblage of parts I could compartmentalize, rearrange, brush on and, just as easily, strip away. I was a Colorform paper doll. Mrs. Potato Head. An Etch A Sketch. Shake and start over. This man liked a woman who wore baseball caps and big hoop earrings; I went shopping. This one wanted a woman to take home to Mom; I went to church. Another had a thing for Claudia Schiffer; I bleached my hair and bought big rollers. This one was into athletes; I joined a gym. Sometimes when my girlfriends and I went to bars in El Paso where we meet college boys from UTEP or GIs stationed at the nearby military base, I’d even make up a new persona. I was Savannah. Or Callie. Or Elena. I was a medical student. Or a dancer. Or a runaway. I had no scruples about lying. After all, I knew they weren’t really interested in me; an Elena was as good as a Savannah or an Elizabeth. I was all surface. Smoke and mirrors, I’d joke.

How tenuous a hold women have on the power they believe they possess. When I was seventeen and still living at home, I pulled a book from my parents’ bookshelf. It was about marriage and was written by a Christian woman. My parents were evangelicals then and most of our reading material involved how to be better servants of God. This book had a foreword written by the woman’s husband. I remember reading something to this effect: “My wife is a beautiful woman. Still, how hard it must be on her to know that every ten years, a new decade’s worth of young men no longer find her desirable.” What hooked my seventeen-year-old brain was the instability of power—that at some point, no orange tackle box could save her. I hadn’t considered this before. It was like suddenly realizing there was fine print in a contract I had already signed. I remember looking into the mirror and thinking about what my mother’s friends would say to me when they’d come to coffee—things like, “Oh, to have that body again!” Or, “Oh, how time flies.  Enjoy that face of yours now!” What were they talking about? Would men really stop desiring them? Up to this point, getting older had meant only that I would get prettier. I’d grow boobs. I’d be able to wear makeup. I had never before thought of getting older as being bad. Suddenly I realized that I was sailing toward a horizon on a world that was not round, but flat. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do but brace for the fall.

This knowledge made the performance I was giving all the more important. I began to really feel the pressure as I was finishing college. Although an honors student with plans for graduate school, I was convinced that I was running out of time to accomplish the most important goal: marriage. My mother had been engaged three times before her senior year of school. My cousins and many of my friends from high school were already planning their weddings. “Some women never get married,” an older cousin consoled me when I showed up, date-less, to Thanksgiving dinner. “It’s okay,” she patted my arm, unconvincingly. At the time I was dating a med student, but tradition instructed me that the man, not the woman, gets to propose. After three years together, he still wasn’t proposing and was making plans to move elsewhere for his residency. “Of course he hasn’t proposed. Why buy the cow if he’s getting the milk for free?” my father intoned. “But I’m not a cow!” I protested.

One night I went to dinner with my roommate and her parents. Over drinks her mother laughingly told us about how she got her husband to propose: “I spray-painted the window of his car with the words, ‘Shit or get off the pot!’” I cringed at the metaphor. But I got it. Soon after, I told my boyfriend, blankly: “I’m twenty-three. I’m not going to look like this forever. Either you ask me to marry you, or I need to go out and use what I’ve got now to find someone who will.”

No surprise that we broke up soon after. So I went to grad school. I finished graduate school ten years ago and have been teaching gender studies classes at a community college for almost as long. The conversation hasn’t evolved much. My students read and discuss poems by feminist poets like Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich and Kim Addonizio. I lead them in discussions about the traps of a media-driven society obsessed with an unrealistic feminine ideal. We mourn for young girls growing up under the guidance of shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, and Extreme Makeover. We reminisce about our mothers’ beauty routines and the suitcases of Barbie dolls we kept under our beds. We admit to each other our obsession with the mirror, our dieting woes. We shake our heads and cluck our tongues at sexism masquerading as girl-power in popular songs like “Put a Ring on It,” and “All About That Bass.” They are comforted to know that their professor, long-steeped in feminist theory, still battles with her own vexed position in regard to beauty and desire. I, in turn, feel guilty for allowing them that comfort, which I worry confirms for them that there is no way out of the [tackle] box and therefore no reason to seek, much less attempt, escape.

Last year I turned forty. In our culture, this means I have officially entered the point of no return, crossed over into the no-woman’s-land of middle age and its menagerie of cougars and crones, am preparing to fall off the edge of the world. Woman overboard, my body parts sagging, shrinking, sinking. Here, then, is the whirling sea of my life: my ex-husband dating a woman seventeen years his junior; my father engaged to a woman who just turned fifty; my mother choosing an aquarium of brightly colored fish instead of a husband. I myself am remarried, this time not foolish enough to imagine marriage as a destination. If I’m on a raft, my husband’s on it too, both our hands in the water paddling. I take my face off before I get in bed. I trust him to love me—faceless and bare, hooked and gutted.

Still, there are nights when my husband falls asleep before me, and I close the door to our bathroom, stare into the mirror, push my disloyal skin back and up, beseech it to stay and not sag. When it refuses, I reach for the vials that line my shelves, for their promises of youth and beauty and perpetual power. As if from over a hill I hear Botox and Juvederm and their minions calling, like Christina Rossetti’s 19th century goblin men: “Come buy, Come buy.”

They sound so kind, and full of love.

Elizabeth JohnstonElizabeth Johnston has been telling stories since middle school, when she found (like Scheherezade) that a good story can distract bullies.Her poetry has appeared in a variety of literary magazines and collections and been nominated for Pushcart and “Best of the Net” prizes. You can read her most recent poems in New Verse News, Mom Egg Review, NonBinary Review, The Luminary, Rose Red Review, Carbon Culture, and Cahoodaloodaling. While primarily a poet, she also tells stories in other genres, as evidenced by “Tackle Box” and a number of scholarly essays on gender. Her co-authored play, FourPlay, was featured at the 2014 Rochester Fringe Festival and received honorable mention in Cahoodaloodaling’s 2014 In Cahoots Collaboration Contest, and her play, “Cinderella Snubs a Hand Out” will appear in Cahoodaloodaling’s summer 2015 issue. Elizabeth is a founding member of the award-winning writer’s group, Straw Mat. She makes her home in Rochester, NY, where she enjoys the messiness of life with her partner, Brian, her daughters, Ava and Christina, and a menagerie of unruly pets.

 

When You Stop Digging

I have started going to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings—the acronym is SLAA, pronounced like the chopped cabbage side-dish that a friend of mine once declared only straight people eat. Which means that the other program I belong to, the so-called “beverage program,” which shall remain nameless because the first rule of Fight Club is we do not talk about Fight Club, would be pronounced “AHHHHHHHHHHH!” Something between a war cry and a scream. That sounds about right to me.

I sit in the chair in these meetings and I build a parapet around myself: coffee cup, water bottle, sweater, second sweater, handbag. No one can come near me. An elderly woman with Birkenstocks and a Eugene Levy brow sits down beside me and I peep at her from behind the privacy curtain of my hair. She is a sex addict, I tell myself with wonder. I am mentally pointing.

There is no way to announce that I am a “sex addict” without feeling like a parody of myself. Before the meetings, I apply strata of red lipstick and pull my skirt up higher in case someone good wants to relapse with me—I can’t help myself, I am a sex addict. In my head, I am supposed to smolder at the eyes and stick out my chest as I say these words, like I’m in a Tennessee Williams play and I’m all depending on the kindness of strangers.

The meetings are strange and confusing. Unlike other 12 step jams where there is one specific thing you do not do, i.e. drink alcohol, pound crystal meth into your veins, etc., the recovery process for sex addiction involves an end-goal of having sex. I can sit in church basements at meetings until I’m numb, nothing is ever going to turn me into a girl who can one day sip a lychee martini and then go about her life. Whenever I hit the bottle, there’s always going to be apartment fires and losing my shoes on the walk home and waking up to a bedroom full of squirrels and no idea how they got there. So this idea of moderation is radical. I sit in the sex meetings with people who brand themselves sex addicts, love addicts, fantasy addicts (I picture an apartment full of Gandalf posters, unicorns, those 12-sided D&D dice), affection addicts, and codependents, and I mentally bookmark men I find interesting.

 

The meeting I go to most is called, depressingly, Becoming Unaddicted to A Person. It’s been one month, one day, and a handful of stingy hours: no contact with Sketch. My person.

I visit my friend in New England, a woman who’s married and who has a horse. This seems like gluttonous good fortune to me, but she lets me ride her horse, and I do not act flirty and cute around her husband, which is an improvement over some of my recent behavior. I learn that a pony is not a different animal than a horse—it refers to any horse that is short. I ride a pony named Raven through the back trails, and the leaves have begun to turn. I feel happy for a little while, sore in the space between my legs but for once without an attendant need to text pictures of myself in skimpy yoga outfits in a transparent plea for attention. I just ride the fucking pony, and like it, and go home.

 

I’m supposed to be cycling down from the frantic hunt for sex and validation, but I keep looking for loopholes, a way to feed my jones for boy-attention. I message Engineer-Carl, offering to take the bus out to New Jersey to see a Neil Simon show he just directed at some shitty suburban community theater. The bus from New York to New Jersey is disgusting—I take it all the time to see my parents, and I want to record a PSA with the working title “It’s Never OK to Eat Eggs on the Bus.” But I figure taking the trouble to see his show is a nice gesture, and admittedly I’m craving attention; I’m falling in love twelve times a day. But I don’t want to be a big tease or an asshole, so I tell him (maturely, in a Facebook message) that I’m doing a thing and I’m staying out of physical entanglements for a bit, “but you’re my friend and I want to see you and I want to see your show.” I guess I sound like a fucking weirdo; he writes back, “I’d rather you didn’t come, then.”

So I don’t.

Miffed, I de-friend him on Facebook, a dick move that always feels incredibly satisfying when someone has hurt my feelings online. It reminds me of middle-school, when friendship was a package deal that could be bestowed or rescinded: “Give me half your ice cream sandwich and I will be your best friend” was a legitimate offer. A boyfriend was out of reach, so we transferred all the drama to one another.

I teach seventh-grade, or at least I will until someone at school discovers my blog and I get fired, and I see kids come in crying with heartbreaking frequency. I always want to tell them that this is not what life is like. Only in seventh grade is someone coming up to say the meanest thing anyone has ever said to you a fucking daily occurrence. You get older and people learn to talk about you properly: passive-aggressively, and behind your back. Or sometimes they send you messages on Facebook, rejecting your offer of friendship.

The kids make up for a lot. I hear a lot of teachers talk about making a difference, closing the achievement gap between rich and poor, and naturally, having two months every year to get as far from New York as a working-poor person can. But for me, a colossal draw of teaching has always been a chorus of voices asking me things and saying my name while they do it. It’s hard to feel lonely while four different seventh-graders repeatedly intone your name because they want the stapler.

The girls at my school are touching creatures—slouching in their hoodies, all hollow bird bones. They link arms in the hallway when they walk—once in awhile, I am conscripted to join the chain. I lend them my phone to take pictures for yearbook during an assembly, and they return it with a group selfie on the homescreen. I have no idea how to change it back.

The boys haven’t reached puberty yet, but they will, over the course of the year, eyes widening in sudden recognition as the penny drops: girls.

When I was twelve, I fell hard for a boy at my school: Robert. I would sit behind him in social studies and cry. My school had a dance every few months; a dj would be hired, orange drink and cheez doodles would be served in the cafeteria. All the girls would spend their time in the bathroom, running vital messages back and forth to their encampment in the lobby near the payphones. There would be occasional forays onto the dance floor, scattering when a slow song bubbled up. We watched enviously while the three middle school couples came together, everything we didn’t have.

 

Everyone knew I loved Robert, so when a slow rhythm started up, a bunch of girls grabbed me by the back of my oversized sweater dress and propelled me across the waxed gymnasium floor. I braced my feet like a cat before a bath, but my flats slid like runners across it and it was a sleigh ride before I stood before him. I think hellos were exchanged. A ring of girls around us serious as riot police, I put my arms around his neck and began the slow dance, which involves swaying from side to side like a mental patient. I said, I am certain, at least five stupid things that are mercifully lost in the mists of time.

But then the song changed, and got all up-tempo. So no one was slow-dancing, but Robert and I grimly soldiered on, swaying in the inertia. And it wasn’t just any song—it was that 80s staple in which the woman sings, “We don’t have to take our CLOTHES OFF! To have a good time—NO NO! We can dance and party ALL NIGHT! And drink some cherry wine—UH HUH!” It is a song/personal prophecy about not getting laid and burgeoning alcoholism, and when it was finished, Robert ran one way and I ran the other.

It’s been nearly three decades since that magical night left its cheez doodley fingerprints on my consciousness, and I am only now beginning to be able to tell that story without wanting to crawl under furniture. What does this mean?  Will I see seventy before I am able to pull out and look at the pieces of the last year without wanting to rip out my eyes and throw them at somebody?

 

I run into Sketch, walking with his parents in Jackson Heights at the Diwali Festival, an Indian affair bright with costume gold and steeped in the smell of cardamom. He walks me back to Sunnyside, asking why I am always so mean to him. He asks: Do you want to go to the movies? Do you want to go hiking next weekend? And: Can I kiss you? I tell him I’m not doing that right now—I’m trying to do something different. As revenge, he tells me about the girls he’s been sleeping with. Apparently, Kim is a squirter. I love him, but there’s a new layer of relief on top of the complicated, seven-layer-taco-dip strata of my feelings for him when I tell him goodbye.

 

One of the side effects of being a “sex addict” (ugh, air quotes are once more being heavily deployed) is vanity—how I look, how my body looks. I am driven to wear heels my arches can no longer tolerate. I torture my hair with a keratin-and-formaldehyde process so toxic that most salons have banned it and the place I go to leaves me in the hands of the Korean Lennie from Of Mice and Men—his tongue sticks out the corner of his mouth while he works, he sometimes hits my head with the wrong side of the hairbrush. There is a French poodle that lives in the shop, tethered to a chair, and my friend Kyla jokes that it is like the canary in the coal mine, posted to give the workers a heads-up when the chemical levels reach toxicity.

Hair extensions are snapped into my scalp and contact lenses turn my eyes a Fremen blue. Unlimbering the credit card, I spend vast sums of money on clothing and black silk underwear; I am a vain woman, and I would rather work on my outsides than my insides.

So in light of all this, it is particularly disturbing to me that one morning, twenty years ago, I woke up and half of my face had quit. It looked like one of those masks that denote comedy and tragedy; on one side, everything was a few centimeters lower, like there was some invisible sinkhole that my features were slumping into. I didn’t know what had happened, but I had been doing a lot of heroin at the time, so I figured this was down to that.

It wasn’t. It was Bell’s Palsy, some kind of neurological tic that shuts down communication along the seventh cranial nerve once in a while and forces me to tape my eye shut when I sleep. It’s not that uncommon; I was just reading that the hot-shit CEO of a media chain had it recently and was freaking everyone out at meetings. But I get it the way I seem to get everything—over and over and over. Every couple of years since I was twenty, there’s at least one neurological brown-out and I further lose my ability to pronounce words with an F or a P.

Mostly it comes back, but there is further slippage with each passing attack, enough so that it’s noticeable in photos. “What’s up with your face?” was the opening line to an email from a suitor on one of the online dating sites. So much of what we perceive as beauty is down to symmetry and youth, and as those things recede in the rearview mirror for me, other things come and take their place. I still think I’m dead sexy; I think I look interesting, that my face has character. But Sketch thought I was pretty, and I miss that: looking at him looking at me.

 

I carry on with the sex meetings; people are counting days off their last happy-ending massage, off their last extramarital tryst. Some of them have sworn off masturbation, and it freaks me out, as they count days, to know precisely when this or that paunchy stranger last came into his own hands.

As for me, I am getting increasingly hypersensitized to male touch. I go with my friends to a haunted house downtown, unaware that it is Touch-Me Thursday, and accept a glowstick that lets the actors know: touch me. We traverse the winding corridors and through the sets: meat locker with hatchet-wielding pig, zombified strip club, surgical theater with the patient wide-awake and screaming. The glowstick around my neck pulls killers and freaks from their niches and I am cornered and stroked. A man in a rubber mask grabs my hair and I find I am breathing harder.

We leave, and my friends are laughing, and I join them, but I am mentally looking around for another haunted house. I take the glowstick with me. I troll about the Internet looking for scarier, more explicit, more intense. Anything with a superlative label.

I go to my sex meeting the next night, and people laugh when I share about this, as people always laugh when you say something in a meeting that is not funny but is somehow relatable. It’s a bark of recognition.

I go to a yoga class after, and the instructor looks like Sketch: tall, bald, cut, features that look like they were hacked out of a mountainside. I spend the class with my eyes pressed to him, chin lowered like a bull about to charge. My chest heaves when he comes over and puts his hands on me, lifting my legs higher. I put my hand on his hairless chest when I thank him for the class afterwards, and give him my deepest eye-contact over tea in the lobby; another girl comes out with her Botticelli red curls a fountain from her ponytail, but I deftly box her out when she tries to join the conversation. This, by the way, is why I would never date a yoga instructor: you would have to be constantly circling him, growling “MINE” at all the encroaching hyenas.

I ask him to crack my back, which is still tight after class, and he wraps his arms around me from behind. I press my ass against him as much as I dare, and lean back into him as he lifts me off my feet and my spine crackles down to my tail. Wobbly on my feet after, I ask after the classes he is taking, having Facebook-stalked the shit out of him, and he tells me about the Kundalini-training he is doing. It’s all about moving the sexual energy up out of your root chakra, he says, into the other chakras so that you can function more creatively.

Since I’ve been practicing this whole abstinence thing, I’ve been writing everyday, for the first time ever. It’s new. Is it because I’m not humping up on every weirdo I can find? I don’t know, but it feels very Sophie’s Choice. My libido or this thing where the words come out? Which do I need to feed more?

 

Halloween is coming up, and my friend Joanne sends me a satirical post on Facebook showing different available costumes for women looking to get their sexy on: you can be a sexy hammer, a sexy envelope, sexy late-stage syphilis. Apparently there is nothing we can’t add fishnets and false eyelashes to.

I love Halloween, have since I was a kid. Sketch and I met and exchanged love-yous and moved in together right around Halloween; it was the one-year anniversary of his release from prison, and his parole officer used to come around and leave us just enough time to hide the cocaine. We dressed up together every year: Batman and Catwoman; Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf; Lecherous Priest and Catholic Schoolgirl.

Sketch likes to describe the evolution of our relationship thusly: we were back-to-back, fighting our demons together. Then we were side-by-side. Then we kept turning and ended up head-to head as combatants. The last couple of years we were together, we didn’t bother matching our costumes. I went as Hit Girl and he went as a Yeti, and we walked in the East Village Halloween Parade one last time. Walking in this parade is the only way to see it; the sidewalks fill up with spectators like caulking from barricade to building. At the end of the route, someone was giving out samples of Nivea which were discarded in the street, and Sixth Avenue was a long slick of moisturizer. Sketch asked me to take a picture of him in his Yeti costume with two police-officers, in commemoration of walking out of prison exactly one decade earlier. He had added a Yankees hat and an I heart NY tee-shirt to the ensemble: a New York yeti. We laughed our way down the slippery streets, holding on to each other.

I want to call him, but I don’t know what I will say, or what I want him to say. I just want a moment of contact with him, any contact. I could bump into him in the street or grab his ankle in a haunted house. I could send him a single emoji: a pumpkin, or a ghost.

 

He texts me on Veteran’s Day; this feels appropriate; we are certainly veterans of something. It surprises me to see his name on my phone. It’s like getting a text from Santa, and for a few moments, all I can do is blink at it.

He asks if we can talk later, and before we talk, I know it will be the same talk we’ve had before; we love each other, things have to change, why is this so hard?

I feel livelier when I get off the phone, but the next morning, I don’t want to get out of bed to write.  I drift through my day, features listing to one side, feeling as insubstantial as a ghost that begs you to touch her.

Tippy RexTippy Rex is a semi-reformed fuck-up turned blogger who teaches middle school in New York City and thus attempts to mask her identity online so that her students won’t find all the drug and dildo references with her name attached to them. She has an MFA from Columbia, and is easily distracted by shiny objects. Her blog can be found at www.whenyoustopdigging.com.

 

Dad Died

When I was little, Dad would get into the car and say, “Let’s get lost.”

“OK,” I’d shout. “Let’s get lost.”

At each intersection he’d ask, “Which way?” until we didn’t know where we were anymore.

“Look,” I’d tell Mom when we banged into the breakfast room later. “Dad bought me a diary with a lock and key,” or “We threw stones in a river from the bridge.”

*     *     *

“Dad died,” my sister said over the phone, crying. “Dad just died.”

I walked out to tell the guests at our picnic table. “My dad just died,” I said.

I didn’t leave right away. What was the hurry? Dad had died. It was over. I sat for a few minutes with my husband and friends. We made a toast to him. I listened to the wind rustling the maple leaves and the guy mowing his lawn across the street and the blood rustling around in my ears. August. It was August.

Then I left to travel the 53 miles from our house, across the Tappan Zee Bridge and up the winding road to my childhood home, to Mom and Dad’s.

“Do you want me to go with you?” my husband asked.

“No.” I wanted to be alone to cross the Hudson River, to go from when my dad had been alive to the rest of my life.

I drove carefully, mulling over the sentence, “Dad died.”

Dad died. So many ds. Were they plosives? I moved my lips and said it out loud. “Dad died,” and the ds made bursts of air like small, gentle explosions from a cannon filled with confetti. Yes, plosives. Dad died—the d’s soft as pillows, just t’s really, wrapped up in spider webs. Dad died. He died.

Dad. A palindrome—he would have loved that. Dad died. Such a compact sentence—subject, verb, period. A sentence I had never said before that would be true forever now. Dad died.

*     *     *

Dad had been hoping to die since before the nursing home, and why not? He was unable to stand or walk, unable to feed himself, unable to read. For the final few months, the first thing he’d say upon waking in the morning was, “Oh shit, I’m still alive.” No kidding.

He had a dream. “I was trying to sign the check but no one would give me a pen.”

“Sign the check?” I’d ask.

“A check to let me die.”

“Oh, how frustrating.”

“Horrible,” he said. “Just horrible.”

While Dad was in the nursing home, I worried about him being safe. I pitied him this rotten ending. At night I’d wonder if he was scared or lonely. I didn’t want to be there with him, but I didn’t want to be anywhere else—there was not a moment’s peace for anyone who loved him.

Still, his death was a surprise. When one’s father dies, it’s always a surprise.

*     *     *

As I inched up to the tollbooth on the Tappan Zee Bridge, I wanted to tell the toll collector what had happened. Shouldn’t he know? Shouldn’t people be told that everything had changed? I wanted to hand him my five singles and say, “Dad died,” look into his eyes for a moment and then drive off, having delivered the sad news.

Instead I was robotic. “Thank you,” I said. He took my money without looking up.

*     *     *

The youngest of four kids, I was the neurotic one. An insomniac by seven years old, I would fill my bed with books so that when I awoke in the night to a silent house I’d have company. One night, as I lay working my way through Harriet the Spy (a book Dad had bought me for a nickel at a yard sale), there was a tap on the door. “Are you awake?” Dad whispered.

“Yes,” I whispered back. “Come in.”

He opened the door. “I couldn’t sleep,” he had a haggard look on his face. He was an insomniac too, and a reader, and neurotic. “I saw your light on. Want a cheese sandwich?”

We crept downstairs and sat together at the kitchen table in our pajamas, eating cheese sandwiches, two friends who had found one another in the massive, lonely ocean of insomnia.

Later, as the sky was going from black to dark blue, I climbed into my bed, turned the light off, and fell asleep, the crumbling, five-cent copy of Harriet in my sweaty hand.

*     *     *

When he had still been mostly well, we liked to carry our lunch into Bryant Park and sit under the plane trees with strangers. We’d listen to the live piano music. He was a New Yorker, Dad was, but he couldn’t walk far anymore, couldn’t remember simple things, like where his coat was, so we would take the elevator down and cross 40th Street right into the park, like it was ours, like it was filled with our guests. He’d smile at the music. He’d reach for my arm and say, “Isn’t this magic?”

People die slowly, I understood much later. They don’t die in an instant like they do in the movies. It happens in the most infinitesimal steps—in tiny, imperceptible stages. He was beginning to die even then, although I only realized it afterwards.

*     *     *

He stopped making much sense in the final months, the line between reality and hallucinations blurring. “There’s a man in a field,” he said to me one day. “He’s standing with his legs apart, his hands on his hips. He’s shouting.”

“Is he friendly?” I asked.

“Oh yes. He’s shouting for me to come with him.” He closed his eyes and I thought he might be falling asleep. Then, in a thin, wobbly voice, he began to sing without opening his eyes, stanza after stanza after stanza of a song I’d never heard.

I kept still. If I interrupted, he’d lose his train of thought.

I felt the sun beating down on our clasped-together hands.

“I can’t remember the rest,” he said and we opened our eyes. “Why are you crying?” he asked. He mimicked my expression of sorrow because it was what lay in front of him, knitting his eyebrows together like mine, his eyes tearing-up.

“Nothing’s wrong, Dad. It’s just nice to hear you sing.”

He began to pick imaginary threads from his shirt and hand them to me.  I took a few and then told him, “You can drop the rest on the floor. The nurses will sweep them up.”

“That wouldn’t be right,” he said, “to throw them on the floor for someone else to clean.”

*     *     *

After the Tappan Zee Bridge, I took back roads the rest of the way; roads Dad and I had biked once. I felt like my heart was wrapped in a thousand blankets beating somewhere outside of my body.

I knew that the moment one’s father died was something a kid owned. It was mine. I owned his death. I was aware, from somewhere outside of myself, that I was in the middle of a rite of passage, something whose effect I would only later understand, and only maybe, even then.

I drove past neighbors’ houses, but those neighbors hadn’t lived in those houses for decades: Mrs. Whitfield’s house, the Rowells, the Giovincos, the Sloans. Everyone I knew was gone. People I didn’t know lived there now. I turned on the radio and then turned it off. Everything but my heartbeat distracted me.

*     *     *

He hadn’t always been perfect. I had hated him for saying mean things to my sister when she was trying to learn her multiplication tables. He was bossy and moody and unpredictable, but later on he asked me over and over again to forgive him. By then I had my own life, and he had mellowed and I wasn’t mad at him anymore. We were friends by the time he began to apologize.

A few weeks before he died, I told him, “I think about you here and I hope you’re ok. I think of you all the time.” He sat there a minute. I couldn’t tell if he had understood me.

He leaned forward the tiny bit that he was able. “It’s time,” he said, “for you to stop thinking about me.”

“I don’t want to stop thinking about you,” I said.

“I should have been dead a long time ago. It’s time you stopped thinking about me now.” He nodded and closed his eyes. I knew he was right. I needed to stay in the land of the living. He was going one place, and I was going someplace else.

*     *     *

I drove in second gear past the nature center where we used to sing Christmas carols with neighbors. That memory hurt, like it was a kite tied to my ribcage, tugging at me, pulling me backwards toward a suffocating nostalgia.

I drove along Spring Valley. The road was so narrow that the August vines seemed to be reaching for my car, trying to yank me into the past.

I turned up the road to Mom and Dad’s house, which I realized was now just Mom’s. As I neared it, the feeling of being pulled back and back by the vines and the kite in the strong wind of the August afternoon intensified.

Dad died, I thought, and my desire to be a child again welled up with such force that I felt the kite string strain and then snap, the freed kite lofting up and up into the windy blue sky. The vines seemed to retract as I pulled into Mom’s driveway, feeling myself re-enter my body. I turned off the car and sat there, thinking about getting lost with Dad decades earlier. Getting lost then had not been scary. Getting lost, if handled correctly, could be a good thing.

N. West MossN. West Moss is a MacDowell fellow. Her work has appeared in The New York TimesMemoir JournalHospital Drive, and elsewhere. She was awarded gold medals recently from the Faulkner-Wisdom Contest for her fiction and nonfiction work. Her first novel, set in New Orleans in 1878, is under agent consideration, as is her collection of short stories, set in Bryant Park in New York City. She is currently working on a YA novel. “Dad Died” is her attempt to convey all that went through her mind in the single hour following her father’s death.

Dayenu

The rabbi hands me the shovel, instructing me to invert its bowl before scooping the first mound of earth onto my father’s grave. This is the custom, he explains. To honor our loved one’s memory, we must demonstrate our reluctance to perform this obligatory task. With an upside-down shovel, the rabbi says, his free hand patting my shoulder, you cannot hurry.

There’s nothing I’d like more than to get this over with. I’ve never had much patience for the Torah. I am more at home in a deli than in a synagogue, so I think about food. The shovel, as a giant spoon. I remember my father’s dinner plate, how he’d always save his favorite thing for last. Family meals were object lessons in perseverance, fortitude, denial. Dad would not permit himself his beloved mashed potatoes until they sat alone on his plate, the buttery, fluffy white mountain the sole survivor, outlasting lukewarm meatloaf and limp green beans.

Dad is a human garbage disposal, my mother and sister and I joked, watching him peer into the refrigerator to retrieve expired containers of sour cream and salad dressing—not to throw away, but to ladle atop his meal. Paper breakfast napkins were turned inside out and reappeared at dinner, stale bread became croutons for his salad, the last dribble of sour milk was poured over his cereal or into his coffee where it would curdle. While we helped ourselves to seconds, Dad waited to refill his own plate, weighing the odds that a scrap or two might be left behind.

Two years ago in the spring, my father pushed himself away from my table, hands laced over his belly, saying he’d had enough to eat. We had just finished our Passover Seder, one of Judaism’s most symbol-laden meals. We dipped vegetables in salt water that represented the tears of Jewish slaves. We ate matzo, unleavened bread meant to remind us of the Jews’ hurried escape from Egypt. We used the tips of our pinky fingers to spill red wine onto our plates, one drop for each of the ten plagues visited upon the Pharaoh. We concluded dinner with the song Dayenu. Dayenu, loosely translated from Hebrew as “Enough,” gave thanks for the many triumphs permitting the Jewish exodus. At the end of every verse, we sang a round of “Dayenu, Dayenu” signifying that each of the many miracles, on its own, would have been sufficient. Dayenu, our Passover Haggadah text said, was about more than praising God. It was a song that examined the status-quo mentality of always wanting more. Instead, the chorus urged us, raise your voices in gratitude for what you have.

Dad patted his midsection, saying he’d had enough matzo ball soup, enough brisket, enough potatoes. It was the first year he had turned over the role of conducting our family Seder to my husband. My father’s old Haggadah was stuffed with Post-Its and newspaper articles. His Seders were full of digressions referencing everything from the Talmud to the L.A. Times. Each piece of notepaper or newspaper pulled from its pages meant another few minutes tacked onto the Seder run time. Growing up, my sister and I flipped through our Haggadahs under the table, counting down the number of pages we’d have to endure, pressing the books against our bellies to stifle the rumblings until we got to the long-awaited line of boldface, italicized type directing Seder participants to eat the “Festive Meal.” The two of us had never gone more than a handful of hours between meals in our entire lives. Nevertheless, at our Seders, we cupped a hand, whispering into each other’s ears, I hope Dad hurries up, I’m starving.

My husband’s Haggadah had Post-Its, too—indicating the sections and paragraphs we could skip. Our children, who hadn’t received a formal Jewish education and were being raised in a non-religious household, were happier, and Dad didn’t seem to mind. My father was tired lately. He had become quieter. None of us knew that a tumor had been growing inside his stomach for months. If Dad felt something was wrong, he didn’t let on. Instead, he joked. “Dayenu!” he grinned. It didn’t occur to us that his hand might be pressing down to still hunger or pain. A hand on the belly meant Dad was full, and that was that. We’d never questioned why Dad didn’t take a last helping before asking whether everyone else had already had enough. We’d never argued with him when he said he’d be happy to scrape the layer of mold off the top of the old cream cheese for his bagel. The new package, he’d say, is meant for you. That was the kind of guy Dad was. Why would Passover be different?

My father was as cautious and measured with the information he offered up about his childhood as he was with the portions he took onto his plate. There was one story, though, that he told again and again. It was 1944, and Dad was eight years old. His father was dead, his mother had been deported to a concentration camp, and he was in hiding with his aunt and uncle, living in the basement of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest with several other families. One day, a bomb ripped through a nearby building. Plaster rained down from the ceiling in jagged chunks. No one was hurt. Most important, my father said, someone had thought to cover the pot of cabbage soup simmering on the stove. Because of that, the food was salvageable. “We were lucky,” Dad said. “So very lucky and thankful. We got to eat that day.”

The Nazis didn’t manage to kill my father. Many years later, Dad’s own body let him down, in revolt against itself. Cancer, alarming in its ordinariness and stealth, was an indiscriminate and efficient assassin. The morning my father died, on a borrowed hospital bed in my childhood bedroom, his robust body was whittled down to not much more than the essence of a body, to the idea of one, to mottled skin stretched over brittle bone. I thought of my grandmother, dead at forty from typhus contracted in Dachau, as I held Dad’s hand one last time. With its papery skin and feeble pulse, it was so delicate and insubstantial I felt as though he might float away if I let go.

On a hill at Mount Sinai cemetery, overlooking the Holocaust memorial, I’m holding a shovel instead of my father’s hand. It weighs five pounds, then ten pounds, then one hundred pounds, then one thousand. I scoop the dirt, hearing the hollow thud as it hits my father’s casket, and pass the shovel to my mother and sister. Beside us, a line of my male cousins assembles, suit jackets off, shirtsleeves rolled up against the punishing 101° August heat. One by one, they perform the ceremonial burial, shovel bowl-side up, flipping it back over to finish the job. Brows dripping, temples throbbing, forearms rippling, backs hunched over in shirts turning translucent with sweat, they move an enormous mountain of displaced soil back into the grave. No one speaks. The pine box holding my father’s body is obscured and the thuds become muffled. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, dirt atop more dirt. My father would be embarrassed by their exertions. I can hear him urging: please, please don’t go to all of this trouble. Don’t wear yourselves out on account of me.

Back at my house, platters from Canter’s Delicatessen await the mourners. There are pinwheels of roast beef and corned beef and pastrami, Swiss cheese and cheddar cheese and muenster. There are containers of pickles and pepperoncini and olives, coleslaw and potato salad, mustard and mayonnaise and Thousand Island dressing. There are baskets of rye bread and challah and rolls, plates brimming with chocolate chip and cinnamon rugelach and rainbow sprinkle cookies. There is coffee, regular and decaf. The excess suddenly makes me nauseated with shame. I picture my father standing at the end of the buffet, last in the long line of people winding out of my kitchen into the living room, where the early birds already sit in folding chairs, balancing sagging paper plates atop their knees. My father waits patiently, content with maybe half a pastrami and cheese sandwich, one pickle spear, a tablespoon each of potato salad and coleslaw, a broken cookie. At his own Jewish funeral, where a shortage of food would be inconceivable, Dad still wants to make sure there is enough for everyone else.

Once the guests are gone, I wander through each room, picking up a crumpled napkin here, a coffee cup and a nibbled quarter of sandwich there, sweeping cookie crumbs off a card table into my cupped hand. But I can only busy myself for so long. Back in the kitchen, the silence becomes a roaring in my ears that makes me dizzy. I double over the sink and weep, enough tears to fill cups of saltwater lining dozens of Seder tables. When I lift my head, I picture my father standing right beside me. Wouldn’t you know it, he’s retrieving the used plastic forks and knives from the trash. He wipes each one with a soapy sponge and rinses them off in the sink. As he dries them with a dishtowel, he tells me they’ll come in handy when I pack his grandchildren’s school lunches. He divides up the leftover lunchmeat and cheeses, asking to borrow a black felt-tipped Sharpie so he can carefully label each Ziploc bag before stowing it in my freezer. Maybe you can have a picnic, he says. Or another dinner, for a rainy day. Sweetheart, he continues, because that is what my father has called me my whole life, don’t let any of this delicious food go to waste.

No, Rabbi, I am not eager. I have not had anywhere near enough.

Melinda BlumMelinda Gordon Blum’s essays have appeared in the Los Angeles TimesLive Wire, and The Sun magazine’s “Readers Write.” A lifelong Californian, she lives in Hollywood with her husband, two sons, and two cats. Her favorite Twilight Zone episode is “Time Enough At Last,” about an avid bookworm who, along with his books, survives an apocalypse—only to break his reading glasses.

Requiem for a Marriage

“To James, In Requiem,” the wedding present ditty reads.

I open a yellowed envelope and find it tucked in a “Wedding Congratulations” card dated April 10, 1948, signed by twenty-seven people. My father’s coworkers at his engineering firm perhaps? None of the names seem familiar. A lavender orchid decorates the front of the card, with this verse inside:

+++++++Today’s congratulations

+++++++Carry with them, too,

+++++++The very best of wishes,

+++++++For years of joy for you!

It’s something my mother wants me to have, apparently, one of the few cards included in a haphazard stack of old photos she pressed on me the last time I visited her in North Carolina. A confused jumble, some in envelopes that are blank or mislabeled.

Alone in her apartment she pores over old boxes of memorabilia, reshuffling and sorting them according to some system only she can understand. A day later she’ll tell me that they’ve been moved, though the housekeeper wasn’t there, or that a box is empty that was full before. Sometimes she reads old cards to me on the phone, touched by the preprinted sentiments on Hallmark birthday cards and valentines my father sent her long ago. Probably she will tell me this wedding card was stolen, a few months from now.

She is often confused. She calls the management of her Independent Living complex to report that two brown jackets have been stolen. That a black blouse that isn’t hers has mysteriously appeared in her closet, and what should she do with it? That her nursing pin, which she’s forgotten that she gave me for safekeeping last year, is missing from her jewelry box. That someone has substituted a different pair of binoculars for her husband’s. “I’ve never seen these before,” she tells me. “I can’t find your father’s binoculars anywhere.”

My father died five years ago, making the title of the sixty-year-old mock “Requiem” somewhat startling. The rollicking rhymes are typewritten on a sheet of white business paper, folded in half and then in half again to fit inside the wedding card. They were probably composed by some wag at the office and read aloud at the wedding reception. Or maybe my parents chuckled over them in private when they opened their gifts after the honeymoon. It’s nineteen-forties humor—the carefree male has relinquished his freedom and suffered a kind of death by capitulating to the demands of marriage:

+++++++That Jim, to whom all the maidens looked,

+++++++For rescue from the shelf

+++++++Should go and get himself be-hooked

+++++++Is a sad commentary on himself.

*     *     *

They met in the hospital, where my father was recuperating from a hernia operation. My mother Peggy was still a teenager, a lively, pretty, and somewhat giddy young nurse. Nine years her senior, Jim was a staid engineer, bookish and antisocial. She always said he was handsome, a cross between Clark Gable and Tyrone Power. She thought it was glamorous to be dating an older man. Shortly after they started seeing each other, he left on an extended voyage to India and the Middle East to earn his engineering license as a machinist. That was exotic too, getting postcards from Calcutta and Port Said. “Missing you!”

They met in the hospital, where my father was recuperating from a hernia operation.

When they finally married, he was thirty, she was twenty-one. Their age difference isn’t apparent in their formal wedding portrait. She is regal in a flowing satin dress with seed pearls stitched around a scalloped neckline. Serious and proud, he stands erect beside her in full tails and pinstriped trousers. My mother was 5’9”, my father not much taller. I don’t know if she was wearing flats, but I know that she did when they were dating. She looks very beautiful, her brown hair in waves, her expression serene. He is indeed very handsome, his hair jet black, his face pale. There is a solemn purity in their expressions as they look forward to their unknown future together.

*     *     *

She gave up her nursing job when she became pregnant. By the standards of the day, she’d made it. “All of the other nurses were jealous,” she told me. She was married to a prosperous professional; they’d decorated their Jersey City apartment in daring modern style, with freeform orange glass ashtrays, a tailored studio bed with abstract figured upholstery in browns and yellows, and Dufy and Picasso reproductions on the walls. She was surrounded by wedding presents, and Jim was always buying her modern copper jewelry.

There wasn’t a lot to do, though. She wasn’t keen on housekeeping. She liked a good gossip but all her friends were busy at the hospital. When their baby girl was born she had her hands full. “I’ve got my hands full,” she told the grocer. “Our new baby is a handful,” she told the dry cleaner. Motherhood wasn’t what she’d hoped it would be. The baby shrieked all day long, and while she knew it was just colic, there were days she thought it would drive her mad.

+++++++However, inasmuch as he

+++++++Has dashed their hopes thus down the drain,

+++++++The only compensation we

+++++++Can offer for the ball and chain

+++++++Is this carving set…

It was hard to say who was more bound by the ball and chain. Jim was still free to work and move around in the world, while she was confined to the house and a squalling infant. Jim took over child care in the evenings, walking the baby back and forth, back and forth in their tiny living room, but life just wasn’t all that much fun any more.

He seemed bent on changing everything about her that had attracted him to begin with, criticizing her loquacious high spirits, suggesting that she read more, learn more about modern art and music. He recommended a more severe hairstyle, with her hair pulled away from her face. They were saving to buy a house, and went out less. He’d never liked to dance the way she had anyway. It was her idea to start a penny budget, recording each day’s expenses on a notepad, and then transferring them to leather binders for financial projections. It was something to do. Her mother had warned her that maintaining household finances was going to be difficult. “You’re not going to be able to spend all your salary on clothes anymore.” Managing their money made her feel grownup.

+++++++Is this carving set, ostensibly

+++++++For cutting meat—but could

+++++++Be used, to set him free

+++++++If things by any chance should?

Always prone to denial and self-deception, she would have told herself she was happy. She just thought it would be different. That’s all.

*     *     * 

Soon enough they moved to the suburbs, another child on the way, and she became a suburban housewife and mother in the PTA. For a while she enjoyed the domestic flurry, trading recipes, cooking pot roasts and meat loafs, and tuna casseroles. Bent over a Singer sewing machine in the upstairs master bedroom, she produced two seersucker nightgowns for her daughter, and a red felt skating skirt, complete with appliques of Santa and his sleigh and reindeer. She and three of the other first grade mothers did a high-spirited can-can at the PTA talent show that they rehearsed for many weeks before the event. They were giddy with laughter.

Always prone to denial and self-deception, she would have told herself she was happy. She just thought it would be different. That’s all.

But the other mothers were busy with their own children and households, and she was often lonely during the day, spending afternoons watching soap operas on TV, waiting for Jim to come home from work in the city. “General Hospital” was her favorite. She left the TV on all day—“for company,” she said.

Evenings, after his long commute, Jim was increasingly impatient with her need for conversation, preferring to settle in with a scotch and the Wall Street Journal.

“I’m reading, Peggy. Can’t you see I’m reading?”

She drank a martini, and then a second, and couldn’t seem to refrain from interrupting him. “Jim? Oh, never mind.”

She worked on a book of crossword puzzles, started up again. “Joan called today. You won’t believe what Harriet is spending on their new living room set.”

“Peg, I’ve been working all day. Can’t I have a little peace?”

+++++++The cocktail set, will also help

+++++++When with potent spirit filled,

+++++++To recapture that carefree self

+++++++Now relinquished and willed.

She never felt like cooking or cleaning any more. She’d discovered that exertion gave her hives. Complaining of allergies, chronic colds, and fatigue, she began to spend her days in bed. The drapes were always drawn while she napped and watched the soaps. Her children tiptoed into the house after school, their voices hushed. When Jim got home from work, she pulled a housedress on over her nightgown and settled downstairs on the living room couch with a martini and cigarette to complain about her day.

“I just don’t have any pep today. I don’t understand it. Of course I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.”

“I’ve got a doctor’s appointment for Thursday. We’re going to try a specialist. I think I’m allergic to something, and Dr. Williams does too.”

He never questioned her multiplying ailments, but they fought about her talking, they fought about who was going to make dinner.

“You know I get hives from the hot stove,” she said.

More often than not, he threw down the newspaper in disgust and strode into the kitchen to improvise a meal.

Sometimes he didn’t, and she announced, “It’s do-it-yourself night, kids!”

Tensions escalated when the children became teenagers. Their son rebelled against his father’s authoritarian control by flunking his classes. Their daughter mouthed off about her mother’s hypochondria, her father’s politics, American imperialism, and life in suburbia.

Jim retreated in angry disappointment from all of them.

For a while after the children left for college, Peggy emerged from the bedroom and developed her own social life, playing bridge in the evenings, earning a Life Master certificate in duplicate bridge tournaments. Jim declined to play bridge, or to engage in any activities she excelled at. They continued to bicker, and soon her lethargy and chronic illnesses returned. Both children moved thousands of miles away when they married. They rarely came home, and their parents never traveled to see them.

*     *     *

The first time my husband visited my parents, he was astonished. “It’s like a war zone.” My father had taken over the food shopping and cooking completely after his retirement and became enraged when my mother peeked into the kitchen. “It’s under control, Peg,” he said, banging pots and slamming cabinet doors. At the dinner table, he was angry when she interrupted him. She fumed when he rebuked her. They fought about what to have for dessert. About the correct way to load the dishwasher. About our plans for the next day. There were no victors in their skirmishes, the product of decades of simmering tension and sniping.

It was hard to explain to my husband why they stayed with each other. It was nothing like his large extended family, where squabbles were short-lived and everyone was always gossiping and giving advice. Maybe there is no explanation.

The times. Their Catholic upbringings. My father’s strong sense of duty. The energy my mother had invested in her self-diagnoses and self-delusions. Inertia. Familiarity. Fear of being alone. Habit.

*     *     *

Now that my father has died, my mother looks back at their marriage as years of uninterrupted joy. She frets about all that’s been lost. The missing objects they shared have taken on exaggerated sentimental value. The carving set. The martini shaker and glasses. “We had cocktails every night,” she says, proud of their sophistication, forgetting the discord. The silver pitcher that she wrapped tightly in cellophane after their wedding and never used. The pewter chandelier that hung over the dining table in their house in New Jersey. “It was just lovely. Remember that chandelier? I was surprised neither of you kids wanted to take it when we moved.” The ceramic ducks they bought on their trip to Spain. “You haven’t seen the ducks, have you?” she asks every time we visit, though her rooms are overflowing with boxes of knickknacks that have never been unpacked.

Now that my father has died, my mother looks back at their marriage as years of uninterrupted joy. She frets about all that’s been lost.

She sorts through mementoes and scrapbooks of their life together, lost in nostalgia for the fictional marriage she has created. Eyes narrowed in concentration, she shuffles stacks of old greeting cards that she pulls out of their envelopes and strains to read with her bifocals. She mouths the verses out loud, setting her favorite cards aside so she can repeat the ritual again a week later.

“The man was a saint, a real saint,” she likes to say, shaking her head in rueful regret at his passing. Her requiem for James.

*     *     *

I write scenes of my parents’ life together, holding snippets up to the light, selecting, rewriting, rearranging. I choose some to keep, others to toss back into my box of jumbled memories to look at later. Do I see through a glass darkly when I reveal the unhappiness of their union? Was there something I didn’t hear, under the prolonged cacophony of their disputes? A requiem is an act of remembrance for the repose of the souls of the dead, yet remembrance doesn’t always bring repose, for the dead or the living. I search for insight as I create my own fictions of the past, I look for resolution, but sometimes I think I’m no closer to understanding what kept my parents together, or why our family fell apart.

“Peg, could you please just be quiet? Can’t you see I’m trying to read?”

“I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night.”

Jacqueline DoyleJacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she teaches at California State University, East Bay. She has published creative nonfiction in South Dakota Review, Southern Indiana ReviewNinth Letter online, and Southern Humanities Review, and fiction in Lunch Ticket, Confrontation, Tampa Review online, and elsewhere. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart by South Loop Review, and also has a Notable Essay listed in Best American Essays 2013. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle

This Is the Way We Wash the Clothes

FACT: I am fourteen years old. I already know more than my mother does. She doesn’t drive. She doesn’t work. My mother quit school after eighth grade and went to vocational school. Now she has kids in grade school, junior high, and high school, plus four more at home, three in diapers, cloth diapers. Every day she stays at home. She washes clothes in the wringer washer in the cellar.  During commercial breaks from Search for Tomorrow until One Life to Live many hours later, she takes out the last load, puts in another, and hangs clothes on the line.

Her coffee cup and saucer sit beside her on the couch arm rest. If we interrupt her while her stories are on, she sometimes says, “Leave me alone!” She sometimes says, “I just don’t feel ambitious today.”

FACT: We live up north, in the boonies, the sticks, further back in time than the town. I go to high school. My teachers say I will go to college. I am in choir. I am in debate. I wear micro-miniskirts. I have babysitting money. I do not watch soap operas.

My mother has a scar on the inside of her arm between wrist and elbow, white pudding-y streaks on the skin and a bumpy bone that pushes up. She kept it out of sight, close to her side for years. I never really noticed. She got her arm caught in a wringer. That was one of only two or three brief stories about her childhood. Her brother drowned a cat in a bucket of tar Grandpa was using to fix the roof. She got her head shaved and the kids at school pulled her scarf off and chased her home, yelling “Lice head! Lice head!”

My mother set her hair with bobby pins and used home permanents and powdered her face on Sunday when she wore her blue dress. My mother was pretty. Her voice when she sang “Winds Through the Olive Trees” or lullabies, was low, and I realize now, beautiful.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Summer vacation. I am bored, ambitious, and superior, so I graciously do the laundry, sure I will do a better job than my mother. My sister, Grace, comes down the cellar steps to help. She is four or five with dark wispy hair, an age that admires teens. “I wish I had pimples like you,” she says.

At the bottom right of the wooden steps my father made is a barrel stove on a dirt floor; on the left is a concrete floor and a wringer washer. Behind the washer are cobwebby wooden shelves filled with jars that gleam in the dimness: twenty quarts of tomatoes, thirty quarts of sweet and sour beans, apple butter, pieplant, pickled beets, plum jam with white paraffin on the top, a few big jars of pickled herring. In the fall and winter, piles of pumpkins and squashes lie there too, and potatoes whose eyes grow a foot long, reaching out like white umbilical cords.

The wringer washer, a stout lady on four iron legs with a roller bar like crossed arms, is already groaning and sloshing, plugged into a temporary electrical outlet which screws into the light socket. The light bulb screws into the other end; when you pull a string to turn off the light, the washer suddenly stops.

FACT: I don’t remember every detail. Twin rinse tubsgalvanized tin on legs with rollersare filled with water from a hose attached to a spigot somewhere. My mother has already filled the tubs. We open the washer lid, the agitator stops, and we fish the laundry out of the washer. Grace feeds the clothes between the dough-colored rollers into the first rinse tub. I stand on the other side helping them through. We both like the squiSsSSSHHHH of water hissing through the white pockets of jeans and spraying in our faces.

FACT: The wringer strips the newness out of clothes. My favorite tee shirt will be rough and stretched out on the bottom, faded from the sun; it will never feel soft again. It makes me look different and I long for a dryer like my school friends have, the ones with piano lessons, who swim at the Y and have lots of shampoo and conditioner in their bathrooms.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes

We wash all our clothes in the same cold washwater. First pillowcases, towels, sheets, and not-too-dirty things. Add more Fels Naptha from the shiny green box, then do underwear and t-shirts. Add more soap until the water is slippery and gray. Put in diapers. Last of all, Dad’s overalls stiff with concrete. There’s sand in the bottom of the washer. When all the clothes are washed and rinsed and wrung and hung on the clothesline outside, we’re still not done. We have to empty the washer and the two rinse tubs. Unhook the stiff black hose from the washer’s edge, fill a pail, and carry it up the outside stairs and all around the house, past the lilac bush, past the clothesline, across the driveway out to the garden; because there’s no drain in the cellar floor. That’s why we don’t change water for every load.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes

Grace and I are probably doing towels. Suddenly Grace cries, “Help!”  Her fingers are stuck between the rollers.

“Pull!” I say. It seems obvious enough. How could it be hard to pull her fingers out?

“I am but they won’t come out.” She whimpers.

I am certain I can get them out. I reach over and pull hard. “Ouch!” They won’t come; pulling only stretches her skin. The most I can do is keep her hand from going further in. My confidence evaporates. What will we do? What will we do? Then I notice the flat white bar on top of the wringer arm with words on it like “Safety Release” or “Emergency Release,” It should have been obvious but it wasn’t. I slam it hard with the palm of my hand. Nothing happens. Dammit. I slam again and press down. Like magic, the rollers come apart, and Grace pulls her hand out. Her fingers are cold and red but nothing is broken.

“Thank God!” I hug Grace. “Someone invented that after people got their hands caught,” I tell her. I am SO grateful to whoever it was.

FACT: “The revolving rollers exert 800 pounds of pressure.” Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

FACT: The plaintiff, who was eight months pregnant, was feeding some wash into the wringer… Her fingers became entangled in the wet clothes and were pulled into the wringer…, causing her to sustain injuries to her arm. The washer was equipped with a safety release mechanism. However, it was located to the right of the machine and the plaintiff, while she was able to reach it, was not able to exert enough pressure on it to release the wringer.

Grace and I take a minute to calm down, and then go back to doing laundry. The flattened clothes fold into the clothesbasket in layers like Christmas ribbon candy. Together we carry the bushel basket with the falling-out bottom up the concrete steps. The thin metal handles dig into our hands as we pass the lilac bushes, and dump the load under the clothesline pole my father made. We hang up the wash.

On the way back we stop in the living room and tell my mom what happened. “Are you all right?” she asks.

“Didn’t you get your hand caught in a wringer when you were young?” I ask.

“Oh yes, I sure did,” she says and turns back to her soap operas.

Many years later, I ask her more.

FACT: My grandmother was a trailblazer. In the 1940s when only movie stars got divorced, she got divorced. Twice. She had eight kids and worked as a cook in a bar. My mother stayed home, watched her younger brothers and sisters, and did the chores.

Although I’ve asked my mother, I don’t have all the facts: She probably stood on a chair to feed the clothes through the wringer. She was all by herself when the rollers sucked her fingers in. She must have pulled; but the rollers pulled back, sucked in the hand, twisted the skin, swallowed her arm nearly to the elbow. She pulled till the skin came loose, twisted it around to the other side of her arm, tore it open to make those scars. She may have had the wits to try to pull the plug, to turn the machine off, but couldn’t reach that far. How do you fight the machine with only a girl’s strength? How do you pull back against a thing that never tires? The pressure, the tightness became unbearable until her bone cracked. She must have screamed, cried for help, with no one around but her younger brother and sisters. How long did she cry and scream before a neighbor heard her and came over? How did they get her arm out? With a crowbar? A claw hammer? Was there a release bar on that washer?

My mother says she went to the hospital and wore her arm in a sling, but how could a sling be enough when a bone is sticking up?

FACT: When this happened, my mother was six years old.

My mother has a scar on the inside of her arm, a dramatic striation like layers in onyx, and on the inside between wrist and elbow, a bump pushes the skin up. She showed me how she can’t spread her fingers out straight, something I never noticed. It was never a big deal. She got used to the damage, an echo of one day when a girl of six did the family wash.

FACT: My mother is not bitter.

FACT: My mother’s flawed arm lifted ten babies and carried fire logs and dishpans of water and bushel baskets of wet clothes up the cellar steps out to the clothesline.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Lita KurthLita Kurth (MFA Rainier Writers Workshop): work accepted or published in FjordsReviewReduxRaven ChroniclesMain Street RagTikkunNewVerseNewsBlast Furnaceeliipsis…literature and artComposeTattoo HighwayComposite ArtsVerbatim Poetry, the Santa Clara ReviewVermont Literary Review, and othersHer work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Phantom Language

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely

“I don’t remember anything that happened to me.” Michael lifts his hands to chest level as if he is about to catch something. He has beautiful hands that make neat stitches on a hem or trace in the air music’s rise and fall.

Now they feel the emptiness in front of him, searching its parameters, the borders of this forgetting.

“I don’t remember anything, really.” He looks up and to the left as if the memory hangs somewhere in his periphery.

“My time in jail is a blank time.”

His memory, attuned to the finest details, was one of the first things I noticed about him. We both volunteer in the food bank’s garden and, as we eased lettuce seedlings into the ground, he told me a story saturated with particulars: what everyone wore, how they sat, the type of wood the table was made from, how its grain aligned.

I had noticed a tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve as we weeded. It is a cross, lightly colored, mostly scar, the size of a silver dollar. When I asked about it, he continued to dig for a few moments. Then straightened up and faced me.

“I don’t usually tell people this, but I don’t want to lie to you. I got it in jail.”

I wait for the story, but the prison—its walls, its people, its colors—is blank.

What he remembers is this: Moby-Dick, An American Tragedy, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Look Homeward, Angel­—paperbacks he read in the prison library. He can recite the first chapter of Moby-Dick from “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely” to “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air,” shaping the sentences with his hands, marking commas with his index finger.

Shortly after leaving prison, he let two friends trying to break into the business tattoo the left side of his back with a saucer-sized black circle caught in a net of angular tendrils that reach over his left shoulder and down to his lower back, scooping around his waist. Nearly a decade and a half later, he chose a tattoo for his right side and hired an established professional to render the spectral cherry blossoms of Ando Hiroshige, with subtle browns and pinks, little blue sepals cup each blossom. The delicate branches mirror the crude tendrils, reaching toward the blank space over his spine.

 

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon

In hundreds of minute gestures, our bodies speak memories, wordless ones where language shears off, the ones which remind us of our precariousness, remind us our intellects won’t save us, remind us we are animal—the sudden crack of the ice, the rearward tilt of the ladder, the lunge of the dog’s teeth. Those times when our bodies, gripped by pain, become foreign to us, even antagonistic. When relating these stories language retreats and the body takes over narration. One rises from the chair, lifts the arms, or drags the collar down to show—there, there is where it broke.

I rise almost without realizing in the thin hospital gown and say, “I was like this.”

Say, “He had me like this.”

Then even those fragments break apart, separating from one another like petals as a blossom scatters in a strong wind, and the nurse takes me to the table so my body can continue telling. Telling with blood, with swab, telling with flinch, telling the needle, telling the stitch. The single stitch. The nurse’s hand on my shoulder telling me we can stop at any time.

 

Take almost any path you please

Browsing in a used bookstore, I found an ancient botany book, pages stiff with age, crenulated from water damage. The author, whose name was obliterated when someone tried to pull the title page from the cover, writes, “Poppies deflorate with such rapidity that their loss of identity is nearly instantaneous.”

 

Nothing will content them but the extremist

The injury resulting from violence is a particular species of injury, distinct from the broken ice, fallen ladder, startled dog. It is the result of force as defined by Simone Weil, “[T]hat x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (3).

In hundreds of minute gestures, our bodies speak memories, wordless ones where language shears off…

When violence is inflicted on the body, the body is evacuated of self; it becomes a vacant site upon which another acts, a blank where the aggressor inscribes their own narrative. Once I saw a photograph of a man who had been lynched and set on fire. His body slumps against the tree, a shell of ash, the ribs and sternum whittled down by heat, legs sprawl in front. He still wears black dress shoes and patterned socks. His head is gone; his name not recorded.

The photograph was in Without Sanctuary, an exhibit I saw at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. As I stood in front of the photo of the decapitated body, I saw that we, the mostly white viewers, were reflected in the glass, our apparitions interspersed with those of the mob.

The photographs were presented with little historical context, as objects meant for our gaze, matted on dark gray paper, framed in silver.  This crowd of well-educated museum-goers was probably already aware that lynching occurred with astonishing frequency up through the 1960s, and continues, though sporadically, into the present. What new knowledge did these photographs bring us? Why had I come to the exhibit?

We learned nothing of the man in the photo. He remains evacuated, a space upon which our gaze rests. Like the mob, we look at this man as wholly body, a mute thing. Like the mob, we stand in the serenity of our belief that we were not the ones who did it; we are not the violent ones.

 

Sleeps his meadow

Though the act of representing violence arises from the laudable intention to expose abuses, it carries the risk of replicating Weil’s formula: to make our looking “[T]hat x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” This particular critique of the image was raised after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos by a variety of critics and writers. In Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry,” the poet Philip Metres argues that the “mass media’s recirculation of visual images of naked and dominated Iraqi men completed the acts that Charles Graner and other United States military police had begun” (1596). Metres implies that torture requires spectatorship. The humiliation of the prisoners involved the threat the photographs would be seen. By looking at them, we help Graner make good on his threat.

Metres asserts that looking at such photographs amounts to participating in maintaining the structure that allows for, even encourages, these brutalities. He writes that the photos inspire “a psychic defense against identifying with the victims that imperial ideology requires to maintain hegemony of its beneficiaries-subjects” (1597).In other words, we guard discomfort by imagining what it is like to be the torturer instead of the tortured. In identifying with the perpetrator, our impulse is to seek justifications for their actions rather than retribution for the victim.

The Abu Ghraib photos lend themselves readily to this reading; victims’ faces are always obscured and the bodies arranged in abstract planes and shadows, while the aggressors look directly at the camera, engaging with the viewer. As Arthur C. Danto writes in The Nation, “When the photographs were released, the moral indignation of the West was focused on the grinning soldiers, for whom this appalling spectacle was a form of entertainment. But the photographs did not bring us closer to the agonies of the victims.”

However, the danger of a photo objectifying its subject must surely be outweighed by the need to expose wrongdoing. Amnesty International reported incidences of torture at Abu Ghraib as early as July 2003. Only after the photos were shown during an April 28, 2004 episode of 60 Minutes II did the Army begin a serious investigation of prisoner abuse. How do we balance the need for information with the inherent danger contained in the images of tortured bodies? More importantly, why do we need these photos? Why does empathy require the image?

 

Should you ever be athirst

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I loved to go to Buhl’s Planetarium to watch the Foucault’s pendulum in the vaulted entryway. I would peer over the brass railing into the marble well and follow the path of the copper bob as it swung back and forth above a disk of green stone set in the floor. As my sisters scattered into the museum I would wait for the bob to tip over one of the silver pegs. If I went late in the day, I could watch the final peg fall.

After the assault, it took me a month to realize what had happened. I had a hundred ways to explain it away: a mishap, mistake, or miscommunication. In a strange echo of Metres’ theory, I sympathized with my attacker. I thought he didn’t understand what he was doing. Maybe I gave him mixed signals. It was no big deal, he apologized. I bet he feels terrible. I arranged all my explanations like little silver pegs in a circle around me.

However, I experienced continuing health issues and needed to return to the doctor. Unable to face the examining room alone, I reached out to a friend. As I told her the version of events I had concocted to protect myself from feeling like a victim, I watched her face reveal horror. She put her hand on my arm and said quietly, “But you said no.” The final peg fell and rolled into some dark recess. I could barely catch my breath as the realization opened up a well of grief inside me.

Then I wanted to talk about it all the time, to whoever would listen. I was shocked by the insistence, my need to speak into the blank left by the attack, to assert myself against that X reducing me to a thing. To say, “I was raped” is to use “I” as a subject. To say, “I survived sexual assault” is to use “I” as a subject in an active sentence construction. To say, “Though I survived sexual assault, I am starting to feel less afraid” situates the subject in a grammatical construction that suggests time, suggests the subject exists prior to as well as after the verb in the dependent clause.

 

Will not suffice

In the months following the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs, fourteen detainees testified before a military tribunal. More than a hundred pages of this testimony were leaked to the New York Times. Without the photographs, would the voices of these men ever have been heard?

These photographs are valuable because they created a space for the subjects to tell their own stories. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that because torture produces little useful military intelligence, it is not a military tactic, but instead a tactic to destroy the personhood of the victim. It reduces the person to a “state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned” (4). To relate a story is an attempt to undo that process, to return to a state of language, to begin to reconstitute subjectivity through the act of speaking. To tell a story is to organize an event and our reactions to it into a meaningful, legible narrative. It is to interpret, an act that asserts our human-ness, and declares we are not a thing, we are a subject who speaks.

When I saw Metres present his own poetry based on the testimony of the ex-detainees at Indiana University, he said, “Their ability to tell their stories is a testament to survival.” Ability is the subject of the sentence, not story, suggesting it is simply the act of telling that testifies to survival, that survival is embedded in narrative, regardless of content. If a detainee chose to tell a different story—the birth of his daughter, graduating from university, learning how to bake bread—he would still be testifying to survival.

 

But here is an artist

Michael loves to tell stories. His photographic memory and affection for detail can make listening to his stories trying.

“The wood is oak,” he’ll begin. “It’s not overly finished, so you can see the grain and the spalting, which makes a black honeycomb pattern.”

At first, I would get distracted during his stories.

“No tablecloths, just these long wooden tables, you know maybe from here to about there. And the walls are made of a similar wood. Maybe a bit lighter. So you sit at this long table. One side is a continuous bench built into the wall and on the other side—well, they aren’t stools exactly because they have a little back, maybe three inches or so.”

Over time, I have learned to be patient and enjoy the way his stories invite me to settle in, allay the endless spinning in my mind through the lists of things I have to do. Then I can see how the level of detail is not self-indulgent; rather it is his attempt to allow me to participate in the experience, as if I was really there with him.

When we tell each other stories, we arrest time, we open a pocket of stillness for the listener; we invite them into another space with us, like welcoming them into our home or leading them to our favorite painting in a museum.

When we share stories, we stand in relation to one another as listener and teller, a relationship that creates continuity between each other.  The source of this continuity is, to borrow a phrase from Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, “the way each affirms the aliveness of the other” (89). In this relationship, “each ‘welcomes’ the other: each—to return to the word’s original meaning—‘comes into accordance with [the] other’s will’” (90). The root of accordance is Latin: cord, or heart. Literally, accord means to bring heart to heart. This does not suggest passive submission to another’s will, but an active agreement to come into harmony with the other.

In other words “to come into accordance with the other’s will” is to create a relationship of mutual consent.

Scarry argues that justice rests on the “symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other,” borrowing a definition from John Rawls (93). In other words, the practice of justice begins with a decision to bring ourselves into accordance and acknowledge our mutual aliveness. This is analogous to the relationship between teller and listener of a story, which also requires a recognition of each other’s mutual aliveness. Moreover, storytelling requires a recognition of one’s ability to speak and the other’s ability to comprehend—both human activities. Therefore it is not merely a recognition of mutual aliveness but of mutual personhood. Because it creates this relationship of symmetry and mutual consent, storytelling can be an act of restoration after violence.

With violence there is no symmetry. One is forced to submit to another’s will. How is the balance of right relations restored? In cases in which the violence is intimate, the perpetrator known, the place your own house or even your own bed, legal action becomes treacherous. For many women the choice is between the silence left by brutality or speaking into another brutality, the brutality of questions that imply our complicity or guilt. But didn’t you invite him in? Were you not his lover? Hadn’t you said yes before?

And I am left with fantasies of crowbars, broken bottles, and most of all my fist so that I could actually feel the bone’s snap, so that he would know what it is like to be this close to someone, to be held in their arms as they break into your body, reduce it to a thing. And it occurs to me this is how it happens, this is how we have run amok in the thousands of gestures—large and small—where we fail to recognize the other’s aliveness.

 

It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life

I couldn’t watch the 60 Minutes II on Abu Ghraib. Instead I read a transcript of the show without the photos. Eventually they were unavoidable, the naked and hooded men, the pyramid of curled bodies, the soldier flashing thumbs-up over a corpse.

What was avoided, however, was the fact that there were forty-two female prisoners in Abu Ghraib. In a quick news search, I learned the brutality visited upon them was indeed photographed, and that Congress has seen these photos, but they have not been released to the public.

This is as far as I can go, because I can barely bring myself to think about those women. Just to hear the sentence there were women there crushes me with a fear I can neither name nor speak my way around, nor away from.  Though I intellectually recognize my experience is in no way equivalent to these women, the sentence there were women there aches in my body, in my joints that I wrenched against his weight. I flee into books and articles, philosophy and science, even the dictionary—for any word to say aloud to remind me I am human.

 

old hunks in that particular instance

Just to hear the sentence there were women there crushes me with a fear I can neither name nor speak my way around, nor away from.

Because rape is considered to be a great shame on a family, the lack of a full account of what happened to the women in that prison allows for continued terrorism against former detainees and their families. Accusations that women were raped in Abu Ghraib have become another weapon in Iraq’s ethnic conflict. Doctored photos of rivals’ wives and daughters in the center of a circle of American soldiers are dropped off on doorsteps, circulated on grainy flyers. My government’s refusal to conduct a full investigation of prisoner abuse leaves these women in limbo, makes them a blank upon which contradictory narratives about the American invasion are inscribed. One story claims the invasion led to their liberation, and the other claims it led to their subjugation.  And I stand, helpless, on the other side of the world.

Instead, I search the blurred faces of the mob in the lynching photo, looking for particulars, something to make one of those people recognizable. I want to ask them: How could you visit such violence on your neighbors? How can you reduce those who share your quality of aliveness or personhood to objects? But I also want to ask, how can we do this? How can we visit violence—if just by looking or even by looking away—on others? More importantly, what can we do now, with our voices and our bodies, to begin restoration, even if we know it will never be complete?

 

There is now your insular city

At first it seems the two male dancers are mirrors of the women, who stand slightly in front of them. They arabesque when the women arabesque, they jetté when the women jetté. Their movements so exacting they are mesmeric. Then the women draw their bodies upward on pointe, arms lifted—high and slender—to the ceiling as the men plié deeply, legs wide. The men shift their weight to the left leg, extending the right outward. The women grasp the outstretched leg for support as they lean, lifting their own leg skyward. Just at the moment when they can’t go any farther, where any more forward tilt would cause them to fall, they release their partner’s leg and cantilever forward into his arms.

We move in relation to one another’s bodies, stepping aside slightly so the other can pass, squaring ourselves on either side of a heavy object before lifting together, leaning our weight back into the belayer’s harness as the climber ascends. In dance bodies move in relation to one another in a way that is completely non-teleological; they are not trying to get anywhere, lift an object, or climb something. The goal is the relation between bodies; the relation between bodies is not a means to an end but the end itself.

What if in the negotiations of our private relationships, in the planning of our cities, and in our political lives we thought of our relations to one another not as teleology, but as choreography?

 

Wade knee deep in tigerlilies

We tell each other stories.

We tell each other stories in this relationship of welcome, of mutual consent.

My grandmother had a great glass jar of smooth grey pebbles she collected on the various beaches she visited during her life, and she would take them out and let me hold them. That is how I think of these stories we tell each other, lifting each pebble out and passing it across the table. We take the same pebbles out each time, lining them up in a row.

This is the thing my mother said that hurt me.

This is the time I felt alone.

This is how my father left.

My need to announce my assault to the world vanished as quickly as it came and just as inexplicably, so I’ve told Michael very little about the actual assault. Instead, I tried out different pebbles.

 

The house I grew up in had decorative windows in the entryway that acted like prisms, scattering rainbows all over the dark carpet where I would lie on my back reading.

 

My father loved to make fresh pasta. He would crank yards and yards of spaghetti out of a pasta maker and drape them over two brooms balanced between the chairs. When I was small I loved to crawl under the chairs and imagine I lived in a pasta house.

 

When my mother and I were in Portugal we ate fresh figs every morning. We would wake up, go to the market and sit on the stone stairs of the cathedrals and alternate a bite of fig with a bite of cheese, watching the city wake up.

 

And, still unable to conjure that blank time, he hands me what pebbles he can.

 

I remember my father had all these fruit trees. When I would visit him in Florida, I could eat peaches directly off the trees and I would have to bend over so the juice wouldn’t spill all over me.

 

When my family lived in Tennessee, my brother and I found this enormous stone in the woods behind our house and that’s where we would play. We were out there for hours, days even. Whenever I think about Tennessee all I see is that stone.

 

The first night I bought my house, my friend came here—there was no electricity or anything—and we sat on this porch and split a bottle of champagne and planted that poplar tree.

 

two and two there floated into my inmost soul

The fall crops were done. Michael and I dug up a dozen turnips and the greens were too spare to make harvest worth it. Packing up the shed at the food bank’s garden for the last time, Michael said to me, “If you ever want to tell me what happened, you can.”

But I didn’t want to tell that story—a story of pain and devastation. Instead, I talked about writing and literature and photography, speech that held the grief at bay. I never told him the full story of what happened; the traumas that originally brought us together ultimately made being together impossible. However, over those months from sweet peas to collards, Michael and I told each other hundreds of stories, reminding me that what defines us is not a series of events, or an accumulation of traumas. In fact trying to pin down “what defines us” is an impossibility. We are—if we are lucky—like dancers, always in motion and in relation to one another.

 


 

Works Cited

“Accordance.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. 1989. Wells Library, Indiana University, Bloomington IN. <http://dictionary.oed.com>

Danton, Arthur C. “The Body in Pain.” The Nation. 26 November 2006. <http://www.thenation.com/doc/20061127/danto>

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002.

Metres, Philip. “Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5, 2008, pp. 1596-1610.

————-. “The Writer in the World.” Artsweek Presentation. Neal Marshall Center, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana. 26 February, 2009

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985

————-. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.

Weil, Simone. The Iliad or a Poem of Force. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1956.

Elizabeth HooverElizabeth Hoover is a feminist poet who enjoys working on projects with conceptual or research elements. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in PANK and The Los Angeles Review. Her essay “Phantom Language” was a finalist for the VanderMey Nonfiction Prize.  She is the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University.

The List

Toothpaste, toilet paper, hamburger, ketchup, buns. Five items make a Saturday morning grocery list. My wife rehearses the items with me, face-to-face, asking me to repeat the list. It’s the only way she knows I understand her. When she asks if I understand, I always nod my head. I double check my wallet for money, stuff the list in my left pocket, and head to the grocery store. Got it. Simple. Drive directly to the store, buy the items on the list, return home. Thirty minutes max. En route to the grocery store I stop at a coffee shop to relax a bit. I bump into a friend and we banter about the everyday stuff that coffee shops elicit, our families, current events, politics, and the recent trend in the price of gas. Two hours pass. As I finish my coffee time, I remember that I need to make a grocery store run.

At the grocery store, I wander the aisles and gaze at the shelves. I travel every aisle, up and down, sometimes twice. I’m looking for something, but I don’t know exactly what. The meat and seafood section is especially appealing. Live Maine lobster and silver-scaled tilapia swim in Plexiglas cold-water tanks. Their movement fascinates me. I finally decide on one pound of king crab legs and two half-pound t-bone steaks. The demo lady at the end of the aisle near the seafood is displaying a special cranberry horseradish sauce that she promises goes well with steaks. I gobble a sample on a cracker. “Wow, that’s really good,” I say. She smiles. I can’t imagine that we don’t have this at home. I add two jars to the cart.

In the bakery, I am overwhelmed by the yeasty smell of freshly baked bread. I gently lay two loaves of French bread in the child seat of the cart, up high and out of danger from being crushed. I add four éclairs just for effect. As I think about dessert, I sense the need to get some other items, but I can’t remember what they are. I am unaware of the discussion with my wife about the grocery store list. Whatever information was conveyed in the now “nonexistent” grocery discussion has vanished, so of course I am not concerned that I don’t remember it. I only know I am in a grocery store. I know how I got there, and that I need to buy food. The list in my pocket does not even register in my mind. I have no agenda, no plan, no list—just this compulsion: buy food.

Following the general notion that I should buy food, I roam the store. Pickles. I need pickles. Barbecue sauce would be good. And cake mix. I add three milk chocolate, three French vanilla, and three lemon—all on sale. I think how my wife will be so happy that I am smart enough to look for things on sale. Bright orange placards announce a temporary price reduction on cake frosting. I add six cans of various flavors then rush over to the dairy department and throw in three blocks of cream cheese because I always use cream cheese in my frosting recipe. Near the cream cheese aisle is the yogurt aisle. I don’t ever recall seeing so many interesting combinations of fruit and yogurt. Ten cups for eight dollars. A steal. I arrange them artfully next to the French bread. The bread reminds me that a nice cabernet would go well with the t-bones. Off to the wine section I go.

I spend a full half hour gawking at the artistry of the wine labels. I finally decide on an Argentinean blend, on sale and with a nice colorful label. The wine reminds me that an aged cheese would be good. I head to the cheese display. Same treatment as with the wine. I spend thirty-some minutes eyeing the cheeses. In the cart goes camembert, a wedge of Canadian Black Diamond cheddar, and a new cranberry goat cheese spread. Cheese needs crackers. I add two boxes of gourmet crackers.

I continue my shopping spree until my cart is about half full. I sense that I didn’t need all that I decided to get, but I really don’t know what, if anything, I was supposed to get. So, I add just a few more small items, jelly beans, tangerines (my wife likes them because they peel so easily), a few candy bars, and a quart of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

At the checkout counter, the cashier asks if I found everything okay. “Yep,” I say. “Gonna have surf and turf tonight.” She says how fun and that it looks like I’m planning a party. “Just the two of us,” I respond. She smiles. The tally is well over a $100. I swipe my credit card and the bagger loads the cart. Off to the parking lot I go; seven plastic bags hold dinner.

I get home about noon. My wife is making lunch. I am so excited as I bring the groceries in and plunk them on the kitchen counter. “I got you some jelly beans,” I announce with a smile.

“Oh no,” she begins. “What’s all this? What happened to the list?”

“What list?” I reply. She moans and shakes her head, then reminds me of our grocery conversation earlier that day, of the list she made, of the folded slip of paper in my pocket. I tell her that I didn’t remember any list. She asks if I checked my pockets. “Five things, that’s all you had to get.” She’s a bit upset with me.

I pull the list from my pocket. “Oops,” I say. I feel badly, but have no remorse.

 

I make lists for everything: medication, medical appointments, errands, writing, reading, free time, and family time. I make lists for cooking and cleaning, for yard work and housework. Banking and taxes are on a list. Handling money is tricky without a list. Sometimes I lose checks to deposit because they are not on a list. If something that needs to be done is not on a list, it usually does not get done at all.

Spontaneous events in my life create a greater emotional impact and tend to override my planned events. Colors of seafood, movement of fish, and the art of wine labels can evoke a stimulating diversion from the dull and inanimate world of lists. Interactions and objects that stimulate my senses usually alter my direction of thought and break my focus. I literally become “listless” when under the influence of sensory details—something of a sensory attack.

My therapists say that stroke injured the executive functioning part of my brain, so that higher ordered thinking processes, such as sequencing and prioritizing, problem solving and multi-tasking, do not operate as they should. Add deficits in attention processing with disruptions of short-term memory, and the milieu in which I try to order my thoughts becomes a world of constant distractibility and hesitation. I second-guess myself in almost everything. Was I really supposed to buy pickles? Am I really supposed to be going to a doctor appointment? I rehearse lists constantly—verbally, silently. When my wife goes over a list, sometimes I don’t understand her complicated verbal instructions. I usually just nod and say yes to avoid looking stupid. Then later, I always wonder what I said yes to.

The making of lists helps me accomplish basic everyday tasks. They help me focus and maintain intentionality in everything I do. At the top of one of my earliest lists, my first therapist wrote in bold letters, Kiss Wife. No list—no action. In the first year after my stroke, I often felt like I was living in a never-ending labyrinth of confusing choices that overwhelmed my ability to discern the important from the unimportant. A crisis of the seemingly urgent or the impact of sensory details could derail an ordered thought or detailed plan within seconds. I felt trapped in a cartoon strip where five or six frames told a story, but I could never make the connections between frames, and I could never completely understand the point or get the joke.

The entire business of list making has to do with engaging my brain to sort through, analyze, and prioritize all of my potential actions. It’s a sort of fake executive functioning, a paper brain. My executive brain functions by trickery. It relies on external prompts to organize information and make decisions. And, with enough external prodding, I am able to evaluate choices and information through the new paradigm of a stroke survivor. Trained as an emergency medicine physician, I used complex medical algorithms and treatment protocols to solve clinical problems. As an army medical officer, I shifted those protocols to war scenarios. Both of those roles demanded an ability to quickly sort through layers of complexity. Now, my protocols focus on getting though the day: shopping, appointments, reading, cooking, and scheduled routine tasks. I try to minimize complexity and distractions. Lists, my therapists remind me, are really my friends.

 

I hate lists. I hate them like I hate the kind of friends who never call unless they need help moving furniture. They also remind me of litmus paper that turns red for positive or blue for negative. My lists are litmus paper; and they always turn red for brain damage. They nag that my abilities as a doctor and a soldier have been effaced by a stroke and that I’m incapable of thinking with just the pure cognitive and imaginative power of my brain. Lists fill me with desire for things not on the list. I want my brain back—I want a fast, spontaneous, fully capable brain.

More than anything else, lists remind me that I need a list. And that reminder can piss me off. When that happens, I usually write hard and fast. I tense my shoulders and jaw. My breathing turns shallow and choppy. Sometimes I scribble unintelligible words, a cipher for the things I am unable to do on my own. If I’m really in a rebellious mood, I will crumple a list and toss it in the trash. Occasionally, I tear a list into pieces and throw it in the street—a sort of therapeutic littering.

I often relegate lists to my pocket or leave them on the kitchen counter, isolated, unattended and impotent, unable to insult my intelligence. Then I move and think independently, passionately, adrift without care or caution. And I love it and I hate it. I love it because I feel unencumbered and spontaneous. I hate it because I so easily lose my focus in the common distractions of another ordinary day. I go back and forth. I know I can’t do that forever—that I have to move forward, so I relent and make another list, and then yet another. I fill them with simple things that must be done just to move through the day. I fill them with complex things I think are important to me. And I do them hard, the simple and the complex—like a doctor at war. I keep moving forward. I persist. I survive.

On some really good days, I don’t need a list at all—and I phone my kids and I kiss my wife. They remind me that love doesn’t need a list. And in those moments, my mind crosses from the world of checkbox items to a world where ideas flow outside the lines like the crayon art of a child at play. When that happens, I rejoice in the spontaneity of my life. And I laugh—God, how I laugh.

Jon KerstetterJon Kerstetter, MD, completed three combat tours of duty in Iraq as an army combat physician and flight surgeon. He obtained his MD degree from the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, MN. He also holds an MS in business from the University of Utah and an MFA in creative nonfiction from Ashland University. He resides with his wife in Iowa City, IA. His essays have appeared in Best American Essays, Riverteeth, Emrys Journal, and The Examined Life Journal.

Forty-Two Measures of Rest

My younger sister Beth is driving home from a visit to her college town. She is flipping through songs on her iPod, listening to her friend Matt talk in the passenger seat. Christmas was a few days ago and snowflakes drift lazily through the air, too light and swift to land. The day seems simple and good.

Beth rounds the interstate’s corner. A minivan is upside-down in the ditch. Four people are standing in a circle nearby, but their heads snap tick-tock toward the van and back at her, so she knows there’s someone inside. She pulls over, calculating geometry in the hacksawed tire tracks. An ambulance hasn’t been here yet. She shoves the car door open, out into the snow bare-armed in her t-shirt, past the group of people standing—if they are standing and talking they must be mostly okay—yells that she is an EMT, runs toward the upside-down van. A woman is ragdolled under the back tire, her body tangled in metal. Her head is the wrong shape and part of her skull hangs open, wet and glistening, the snow falling in and melting inside. Beth pulls herself into the van. The engine clicks; it’s still warm from the heater, chugging through the Michigan winter. Beth puts two fingers into the woman’s neck. Underneath her fingers the woman’s pulse, utterly improbable, beats.

Underneath her fingers the woman’s pulse, utterly improbable, beats. Across town, I’m pouring a glass of pink wine.

Across town, I’m pouring a glass of pink wine. I’m in a wine bar in Howell, one of the single-street small towns that spiderweb their way across the Midwest in square-mile grids before fading away into forgotten storefronts, forgettable suburbs. Garlands twisted with Christmas lights wrap around each streetlight. I lift the glass to my mouth and sit back into the shabby, bottomed-out couch. My two friends are talking about weddings. I am visiting home from Boston where I now live, 25 years old, the age where it’s no longer surprising to talk about weddings. Brittany is already planning hers even though she and her boyfriend aren’t engaged. Sarah got married a few years ago under an awning in her parents’ backyard in a short white summer dress, reception in the local dive bar with greasy pizza and pitchers of beer and homemade cakes brought by the people who loved the couple, three months pregnant and clueless and happy. Sarah is planning the wedding she never had, the one where her parents aren’t deadbeats and she doesn’t have to be pregnant, one with white-starched tablecloths and overpriced centerpieces. Instead of talking about love we compare blue versus pink bridesmaids. Brittany is talking about tuxedo vests and I think, is this all that we have become? Will real things stop happening to us? To me?

*     *     *

I have a history of not knowing the right thing to do or the right way to be. Or maybe there is no right thing to be done.

While I was in ninth grade World History, writing a note to my friend about how cute Mike Munsell looked in his Abercrombie shirt, terrorists crashed a plane into the World Trade Center. Living in Michigan, I wasn’t sure exactly what terrorists or the World Trade Center were, but I knew they must be important by the way the teachers ricocheted through the hallways like electrified pinballs.

By fifth hour band, kids with family in New York had evaporated from school. Everyone was already rehearsing their stories of where they were when it happened and it was an unspoken contest of whose was the best. I had no idea what was going on but it was big and important and I wanted so badly to be important. Alisa knew how tall the towers were and had been able to cry about it so she was already ahead. And then I remembered—how could I have forgotten?—that my aunt and her wife lived in New York.

In reality, they lived somewhere woodsy, too far away to see anything or be seriously injured, but in my mind I moved them into a high-rise downtown. Here was my chance to stop being irrelevant.

But as with most of my grandest plans, I was too afraid to actually do anything. I couldn’t cry and no one would notice me otherwise, so I elbowed one of the crash cymbals out of its tray. People turned and I put my hands to my mouth, all ready to be distraught, but completely lost my nerve. Everyone turned away, back toward the television while the towers angrily smoked. I turned to the boy next to me and interrupted his conversation.

“My aunt is in New York,” I said. His face did not register anything. I was crushed. So I said it again. “I have an aunt. In New York. Right now.”

“Is she okay? Why didn’t your mom come to get you?” I had no answers. I didn’t know anything. I became obscure again.

Mr. L, the band teacher, tried to get us to play. I thought he should probably say something important like how the music would bring us joy in this time of tragedy, but instead he jabbed his white baton at us like he hated us, just a little more than usual. I leaned my head on the big upright bass drum and let the vibrations thunder through me like I was empty. The second tower fell. The trumpets blared their hideous solo while I counted 42 measures of rest.

For the next few years I lied, trying to tell a better story, even though I can’t understand why I wanted to. I made Mr. L a sympathetic character. In this version, he doesn’t make us play. His radio won’t work, so he lets us out into the parking lot to listen to the news in our cars. Probably he sobs over our practice records in his office. In this version I follow Ryan, the junior drummer, out to his car with a group of somber-faced friends. There is not enough room for me in the back seat, so he pulls me onto his lap, and I am close enough to touch the odd half-moon dimple above his left eye. The towers fall, and we think we hear people screaming, and Ryan locks his fingers around me. In this version I am visible, wanted, important. In this version I know about tragedy.

When I get home, my mother rests her head against the humming refrigerator and cries. I start to fear bombs the way my mother fears nuclear fallout. I’m sure the next one is coming. For weeks I can’t stop myself from doodling American flags, over and over.

*     *     *

On the side of the interstate it is far too quiet up in the cavity of the minivan while this woman tries not to die, except for the slow chugging of the exhaust of passing cars, the people inside open-mouthed, saying oh my god and so glad it isn’t them. They will drive home and tell their families; they will feel as if they’ve been a part of something important. Someone else has pulled over, and a swarm of new hands are clutching at the woman trapped in the car. Beth doesn’t look up and swats them away, knows they might break her neck or worse if her back is broken (though she wonders how, really, it could be worse) until she sees the red lights swirling dizzy-round, big men in fire suits, a plastic blue backboard sliding in the snow with its reassuring straps and buckles (she thinks ridiculously of sledding, snow and  ice white-hot-cold on her face); snow drifts, gorgeous and grotesque, into the woman’s hair while the firemen crack the ribs of the minivan wide, slide the woman out. Beth is small so she sits on the backboard with the woman and starts bloody-handed CPR, a cadence she can’t stop, chest compressions. She does what needs to be done. She does not have time to think about its importance. The woman’s chest creaks like a door closing and Beth presses over and over.

The woman’s chest creaks like a door closing and Beth presses over and over. Across town, unaware, I’m opening a third bottle of wine.

Across town, unaware, I’m opening a third bottle of wine. We have decimated the cheese plate, which wasn’t really a cheese plate at all but clearly just crackers from a brown-plastic sleeve and cheese sliced from a few blocks by someone’s mother. It’s all so small I could die. My friends are talking about the pros and cons of buffet versus family-style wedding dinners. None of the things I have to say fit the script. I want to say, really, how many of us are going to be divorced? I want to say that I’ll probably never have enough money to want to buy a house, and is buying a house something I have to care about now? I almost blurt the word mortgage into my glass of chardonnay because that sounds right. So I mention engagement rings, and realize that, fuck me, I’m enjoying myself.

*     *     *

Five years old, at a campground called Marble Springs, I was climbing down the ladder into the swimming hole when I saw a girl floating face down in the water. Tiny waves from the other kids on the shore lapped over her blue bathing suit. I looked at her like she was a sea creature, her blonde hair an anemone crawling outward. I do not remember feeling afraid. I did not know I should be afraid. She was a curiosity. I went to my mother and said, “A girl is floating over there.” My aunt, the one I would later forget on September 11, went over and fished the girl out of the water. Here my memory stops, and I only know what I’ve been told. The girl was heavier than she should’ve been for such a tiny person, so full of water. My aunt, another trained EMT, says she was dead, but she started mouth to mouth anyway. Soon the girl choked, regurgitated water. So much water, my aunt says, gallons and gallons of it. The girl turned from gray-blue to pink again, cried, alive. If it weren’t for you, everyone says, she would probably have died, her brain drowned. But I felt that I had done nothing. I didn’t know anything about ownership of tragedy. I knew I was not a hero. I went back to playing in the sand. To me the water was still clean.

*     *     *

In my family I am surrounded by women who know what they are doing: four trained EMTs, three nurse anesthetists, one medical student. When something bad happens, they do. What if I had been a bit older when I’d seen the drowning girl at Marble Springs, without the instinct to go straight to my mother? Would I still have stepped forward? Or would I have stood back, thinking—what’s going to happen to me?

*    *     *

On the side of the road, the paramedics have finally shown up. Beth still leans on the woman’s chest, trying to pump her unwilling heart, sweating through her clothes; the sweat starting to freeze over, though she can’t tell what’s sweat and what’s blood. She isn’t thinking about the complexities of life and what is meaningful and how we manage it—she does a job. She counts, one two three four five, important numbers. The paramedics lift the back board into the ambulance while she’s still pushing on the dead woman’s chest—and of course she’s dead, how couldn’t she be, with her brain glistening like that, with pieces of her on Beth’s jeans?—but Beth’s arms move compulsively one-two-three-four-five, a bird perched on the back board, until the paramedics say no, stop, she’s gone, too bad, so near Christmas—they say time of death, stop Beth’s counting. Everyone moves so slowly now. Beth is wearing a brand-new outfit, unwrapped from bright-red paper, the fabric perfect and meaningless. Her heart hammers out its own one-two-three-four-five and she is her own earthquake, shuddering. She has to walk back to her car, drive home, have dinner, so fucking normal. Her friend Matt throws up at the sight of her and she tells him it’s okay even though it isn’t, even though he had to stand there talking to the woman’s family, telling them it would be okay when it wouldn’t.

The cashier stares at her and she realizes she’s still covered in blood, her hair wild from snow and sweat.

On the way back Beth realizes they’ve forgotten dinner so they pull into a Wendy’s. The cashier stares at her and she realizes she’s still covered in blood, her hair wild from snow and sweat. In the bathroom she tries to clean her face with scratchy paper towels. She does not want to look in the mirror. Matt orders fries and they sit at a plastic table, saying nothing. The fries are hot and salty and she does not want them to taste so good but still, they do.

When I come home, Beth sits on the couch, wrapped in blankets. She can’t get warm. When she tells me what happened, I have nothing to say. Beth had always complained that she drives by accidents too late to help. She always just missed it, and wanted so badly to do something, to be a part of it. I apologize to her like it is my fault, and I feel like somehow it could be.

The next day Beth’s body will ache like she’s absorbed too much, tender to the touch. It will be New Year’s Eve, when we are pretending to start over. The light from Times Square will flicker from the television. On my way out, Beth says, “Wear your seatbelt.” I can’t help myself from telling the story later on that night. I can’t stop telling it. It is a great story for a party. Telling it makes me feel like I might absorb some of my sister, like instead of getting drunk in the afternoon and talking about carats, I might have been doing something important. Later Beth will say she wishes she’d missed the accident. She should never have wanted to be a part of it. She throws her bloodied clothes into the washer because somehow things have to get uncomplicated and clean.

*     *     *

Two years after I have left Boston for San Francisco, two men have bombed the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I am riding an exercise bike when I find out, watching the TV with the sound off. Red banner; breaking news. CNN plays the same ten seconds of explosion footage over and over until I realize that I recognize the streets. This, now, is the bomb I have always been sure would come. People lie bleeding with shrapnel studding their bones on Boylston Street where I used to walk to the library, walk to get frozen yogurt on my lunch breaks, my umbrella whipped out of my hand and into the gutter on windy rainy days. I pedal and pedal on the exercise bike, legs whipping in circles, too fast. I can’t seem to stop. I finish my workout but I don’t know why. I tell myself I am too afraid to go find my phone. I try to fend off the thought that finishing my workout might be more important to me than a bombing.

In the locker room, I sit on a wet bench and text all my friends in Boston, my coworkers in the building near the second bombing site. Everyone is fine and I expect to feel relief or feel like I have been a part of something, but instead I feel nothing. I feel sick. I stand in the shower until my skin is red.

I walk to have someplace to go. Here in California, summer winds have blown into town early at 40 miles per hour. The wind blows so hard that my legs are knocked around, askew. I lose track of my feet. I end up in a deserted sushi restaurant. The waitress brings me hot tea and I order much more than I can eat. I’ve been consuming nothing but news for hours. I used to live in Boston, I say. I still can’t help myself. A very bad thing, she says, and turns the TV to CNN for me, turns up the volume. Marathon runners cross the finish line in slow motion. Their legs tick the seconds. One, two, then the bomb blooms orange beside them, the energy wave rippling through their bodies simultaneously. It is almost beautiful.

In the library next, I try to read. The wind howls at the windows like an angry cat. It claws in through the seams so hard that I can feel it through the walls. It feels wrong that it should be so sunny. On my phone I thumb through the news. A picture is marked as graphic; a friend warns me not to look at it. I want to be the kind of person who doesn’t want to look. But of course I am. Of course I look. A young, ash-covered man in a wheelchair clutches his thigh. From the knee down, his leg has been blown off. His bone is so white and his skin flutters like bright red ribbons around a maypole. His eyes are open. He is awake.

Everything ordinary is horrible: the Styrofoam coffee cup in front of me, the blonde-haired boy in the fiction section clutching at his mother’s leg and calling mom mom mom. While Boston is in lockdown for the manhunt, my friend calls to tell me she is terrified, but she is taking her dog for a walk anyway, and it feels big and important. I want to tell her she is important. An ordinary thing is good. I want to be okay with smallness but I know the big important things will continue to come and I will still be unsure how I measure up. My father calls me and says he is glad I’m not in Boston anymore. I tell him, me too. For once I do not want to be a part of it.

I want to talk to Beth. She would know what to do, how to act, where to measure the pulse, how to breathe properly. I want her to say, that girl is floating over there; I am an EMT. I want to go back to the swimming hole and save the drowning girl not by accident, but on purpose; to know the simple and right thing to do.

Kolongowski

Jill Kolongowski grew up in Michigan. She is the managing editor at YesYes Books and is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at St. Mary’s College of California. She’s also a proud member of the 3-4-5 writing community. Her work can be found in Pithead Chapel, Revolution House, Fugue, and elsewhere.

Just Walk Away

I grab my baby and run outside, screaming for help. No one steps outside when they think there’s trouble. It’s hotter than hell on this shit hole street in Tucson. The neighbors are sitting inside drinking beer, cursing the humidity that’s sucking away the coolness from their rusty swamp coolers. I’m standing on the road, carrying my limp baby, who I am certain is dead. A more sensible mom would call 9-1-1, not scream for help from unknown, unseemly neighbors. And then Ania breathes. And I cry. We return inside the house and I pull out my breast, the cure-all for all misery. I look at my baby and wonder what just happened? We had just finished taking our nightly bath, and then, while putting on Ania’s pjs, she started crying. The crying intensified, transforming into a hellish wailing. I picked Ania up, did the calm-down bobbing up and down step routine, while singing our song: “I gave my love a cherry that had no stone ….” And just like that she was quiet. Too quiet. Blue and limp. And I ran outside, not wanting to be alone with my non-breathing baby. But we were alone, standing outside, me screaming, Ania doing whatever she was doing. I watch her nurse. She looks at me with suspicion, as if I am to blame for this non-breathing fiasco. As her mother, I feel nothing but guilt. I automatically assume all blame. In the past, I must have strived for amorality, or so it seems tonight, because I am riddled with complex guilt. In the past I have done shitty things, yet, I remained guilt-free. I don’t even know how I am so personally responsible for my baby’s passing out, but as her mother, I claim all responsibility. I must have missed some crucial detail, forgot to do that one thing that prevents your child from stopping to breathe. I fucked up somewhere down this maternal road.

As her mother, I feel nothing but guilt.

In six months of living, she has never stopped breathing. At least not that I’ve noticed. Maybe I’m not paying enough attention. We’re never apart; surely I’d know if my baby wasn’t breathing. She sleeps with me, no crib, but now I wonder if crib death could mean sleeping next to mother in a real bed also. I rock my baby back to sleep and rock myself into an obsessive worry, wondering what caused this turning blue, this cessation of breathing. We had just moved into this rental house. For months, we drove around Arizona in my truck, carrying all our belongings with us, housesitting for kind friends who were leaving for extended vacations, kind friends who knew my baby, dog, and I had nowhere to live. No need for baby monitor. No need for painting the baby’s room. We carry everything in the back of the truck. Good intentioned parent friends, friends that know how parenting is supposed to be (and friends I am now tossing onto my asshole list, hopefully on a temporary basis, the same way I’m hoping this streak of poverty is temporary), like to point out that I have been ruining my baby, and I am missing out on all the wonders of having a baby by not living in a house. It wasn’t until I became a single mother that I couldn’t find anyone who would rent to me. As an unemployed student, I could easily find a place to rent. As a mother, I endure endless questions about my bleak financial situation, and no one offers me a lease. It didn’t matter that I had the money for the first month’s rent and the security deposit in my hand. No one trusted that I’d have the money for the second month’s rent. I finally returned to the divey rental houses where I had lived as a grad student. I tried moving into a better house, a safer neighborhood, but I was so relieved to get the key to this dump, this shitty house suddenly seemed to have endless potential. It even had two bedrooms, one bedroom more than the unit I rented next door. A fenced in front and backyard for the dog. Life was good again. I was about to understand the joys of being a parent with a house.

 *     *     *

I look at my baby and know that she didn’t mind traversing across the state, sleeping here and there. I minded. I wanted a house, a mailing address, a phone number, but not Ania. We’d find swimming pools, go on bike rides, and long hikes with our dog. I’d hear Ania cooing away behind me, tugging my hair every now and then, and feel her head flop off to the side as she slept soundly. She had no worries about food or bed. I am her food and bed. She never turned blue when we were house sitters, which sounds so much more uplifting than calling us homeless. When friends saw us arrive at their homes, and then not leave, but linger on as they hinted it was time for bed, I must’ve looked a bit distressed, because they always ended up saying, “Why don’t you guys spend the night?” The dinner guests who never leave. But we’d leave. Other vagabond friends would be leaving the country, and off we’d go to occupy their home. Good friends every one of them. Good friends who knew me when I was childless, and I was like them, taking off here and there. Thirty-three years of just being me. And now I never go anywhere without picking up my baby, heading off somewhere together. Now we have a home. An address. We get WIC, which means I give the neighbor gallons of milk. She has five kids. I have one who only nurses. I look at my baby sleeping soundly and want her to always breathe. We have an entire life to live together. She must breathe. It’s as simple as that. Breathe baby, breathe. We live like real families now. We joined a baby and mom swimming class. I drop her into the water and her feet hit the bottom, then she bobs back up. She floats, doesn’t sink. I stand by the wall and she swims to me. We live like normal people. I’m a parent who cheers my daughter onward. The Parks and Rec folks let us take classes for free. They encourage me to take a class just for me, have a little me time, but I sign us up for crawling classes. “Maybe next time I’ll take a class for me,” I say. No one knows that we are the freebies. We fit in with everyone else, except Ania has no interest in crawling. She’s young for this class. She sits on the mats and laughs. “She’ll crawl one day,” all the parents say to me. “She can swim,” I boast.

*     *     *

I look at my baby and wonder if she has a fatal illness. I want to start researching all the reasons a baby stops breathing, but I don’t want to put her down, and I doubt I have any books with such answers in our house with no belongings. I don’t want to find out bad news. I imagine all the reasons a baby may stop breathing and start crying. For once it’s me crying, not Ania.

 *     *     *

The next morning I call a doctor. I’m so damn relieved we have this address because this address has given us health insurance for Ania. We get right in to see a specialist at the university hospital. They must think this non-breathing is very serious. The first doctor asks me questions, his intern stands beside him, and I wonder when I’ll answer the question that finally reveals how I fucked up. “Home birth? Why?” he grunts. I’m not sure if this is a rhetorical question or the question that determines just how badly I’ve fucked things up. “I liked the midwives.” I sound lame. “Hospitals are safer.” “I had a back-up plan with the local hospital.” “Back-up plan.” He rolls his eyes. The intern looks uncomfortable. I feel like a pathetic mother. “She’s a big baby, incredibly healthy, all things considered,” he mutters. I wait for the bad news. She’s big and healthy, but may be dying. There is no bad news. He tells his intern to take over, pats Ania on the tummy, shakes my hand, and leaves the room. The intern seems embarrassed for me and tries to be uplifting. He takes out his pen, Ania grabs for it. He laughs. She laughs. He continues with his playful doctor activities, then looks at me. “You have a really bright baby.” He’s trying to break the bad news gently. He then hauls out a huge medical book, the book I want to bring home with me, and he flips through pages, while asking me more questions. I start reading over his shoulder. “I’ve got it.” He’s so damn excited to have figured out the root of my daughter’s illness, I’m frightened. “She’s manipulating you.” “What? She’s only six months.” “She’s smart. She’s a breath-holder.” “What? Why?” “She’s manipulating you. I’d bet money on it. She is perfectly fine. We could run CAT scans, do tests, but I’m positive she’s a breath-holder.” “I have insurance. You can run tests.” “There is no test for breath-holders.” “Why would she decide to be a breath-holder?” “Because she can.” “What am I supposed to do?” “Ignore her.” “What if she dies?” “She won’t. Look, “ he says, shoving the book at me. “She’ll start breathing automatically.” I start scanning through the material. “She’ll do this until she’s four?” “Maybe. If you let her.” Let her? “There’s nothing I can do to make her breathe?” “Next time she does this, because trust me there will be another time, I’d bet money on it, just walk away. Make sure she’s in a safe place and walk away. She’ll be fine.” “What am I doing wrong?” “Nothing. Your daughter is a manipulator.” “Don’t say that. She’s just a baby.” I feel betrayed. My daughter deliberately wants to cause me extreme anguish. She wants to manipulate me. I should’ve read those parenting books more closely. Surely there are plenty of chapters on how not to raise your child to be a manipulator. “Lots of babies do this. I bet you she’ll stop doing this before she’s four. Be firm.” “That’s it? She’s fine? Not dying?” “She’s so smart, she’s a master of manipulating you. Be careful. This precious baby knows you more than you know yourself. She knows how to get a reaction out of you.” He starts laughing remembering my story about running out in the street. “I can’t believe you ran outside with her.” “I couldn’t think of anything else to do.” “Nothing else?” He laughs again. I am asshole homebirth mother. “But why would she hold her breath until she passes out?” “Babies are like that. They don’t think things through. Remember, just walk away.” As we ride the bike home, I wonder about all the babies I’ve known, and there have been many, and I can’t think of one baby who was a breath-holder. Not one.

“Babies are like that. They don’t think things through. Remember, just walk away.”

I call the American Red Cross and ask when they’re having their next Infant CPR class. I am having a hard time believing my baby holds her breath until she passes out to manipulate me. I’m relieved she isn’t dying of cancer, or suffering from seizures, or any of the other possible medical disasters that could have been the cause of her passing out, yet, I’m not convinced she will always simply start breathing. I need to prepare for the inevitable. I look at my baby as I nurse her to sleep and wonder what I’m missing that she wants me to know, when she’ll next hold her breath, and why does my daughter want to manipulate me. I’m already a pushover. Manipulation sounds so evil, so cruel. I will teach her words. Millions of words. She will tell me what she wants. I’m so damn idealistic. I think about the doctor’s final words: Just walk away. Before becoming a mother, I was a public school teacher. Parents would say to me, “You don’t understand because you’re not a parent.” At least I didn’t ask the doctor if he was a parent, a parent who could simply walk away. It will happen again. Just walk away. I rehearse my new maternal mantra. It will happen again. Just walk away. Just walk away. Just breathe, baby, breathe.

Payne candidDiane Payne is the MFA Director at University of Arkansas-Monticello. She is the author of Burning Tulips, Freedom’s Just Another Word, and A New Kind of Music. She has been published in hundreds of literary journals.

Heart of the City

Cliff’s meaty fingers hunt and jab through his report on Arthur Ashe—eyes darting between computer screen and handwritten paper—while Starship’s We Built This City plays on 106.7.

“Yes, sir,” Cliff says in his gravelly voice, tapping his foot. He jabs a letter, glances at the screen, jabs another, double-checks to make sure this machine isn’t on a coffee break. The letters appear as commanded, but Cliff is skeptical. He mutters something about “a white’s man’s contraption.”

“Playing the race card while listening to Starship?” I ask.

He shoots me a quick look, then stabs two more letters like stray peas on a plate.

“Damn right,” he says. “Damn right. But don’t matter anyhow. All comes back to us. We laid the foundation for this shit.”

Who counts the money
underneath the bar?
Who rides the wrecking ball
into our guitars?

“You must be very proud, Cliff.”

He shakes his head and continues typing. Slowly, surely, letter by letter, he finishes the first sentence: Can you imagine being born down south and wanting to be a tennis player—that’s crazy!

“I like this station,” he says. “Songs that won’t embarrass you in front of your boss.” He repeats the station’s catch phrase nearly every time we meet, even on days when we don’t listen to the radio. Each time he laughs, an inside joke he has with himself. Maybe he’s thinking about his old bosses, big white foremen in orange reflector vests pointing down at the asphalt, Cliff following them with a jackhammer. Or perhaps he’s chuckling over the idea of having any boss at all, something he finds very amusing now that he’s retired.

The door creaks open and an officer pokes his well-manicured head into the room.

“Count time, gentlemen.”

I nod and smile. “Thanks.” Cliff searches for the “F” key. He takes his time.

“Save this for me, huh?” He exhales, slaps the tops of his thighs and stands up. “Okay. I’ll be seeing ya.”

He walks out of the room, the officer behind him whistling the song’s final bars.

*     *     *

The first time I asked Cliff if he wanted to take my class, he didn’t know what to make of me.

“I’m sixty-five years old, man.”

“Never too old to read, Cliff.” I was new, and sometimes I felt like I was reciting motivational phrases I’d read on posters.

He glanced down at my copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

“This the one with Jack Nicholson?”

“Well,” I said, smiling. “Sort of.”

He exhaled. “Either it is or it ain’t.”

“No, yeah. It is.”

He nodded and looked around the room. Up at the ceiling, followed the white cinderblocks down to the floor and scuffed his sneakers on the linoleum. He glanced at the paper snowflakes the previous teacher hung above the dry erase board and grinned.

“All right. Sign me up.”

*     *     *

Cliff built the prison. He says it like that, too, as if he alone walked up to an abandoned lot with a canvas bag of tools in one hand, lunchbox in the other. Sometimes in the middle of class I’ll see him look around the room and nod. Or he’ll run his hands over the cinderblocks, fingertips reading history in the bumpy lead paint.

After forty-six years as a construction worker, Cliff sees the world as his job site. A place where things need doing. Plans designed and executed. He’s methodical and precise and despises laziness. His body is permanent muscle. Calluses shaped like hands. A round protrusion on his bald head that other students call his “devil horn.”  Piss off C and he’ll sic his devil horn on ya. He looks ridiculous crammed into the wooden chair with the desk attached—all the students do, but especially Cliff—his hulking frame and thick legs engulfing the chair so it looks like he’s squatting in the center of the room, a comma-shaped slice of wood pressed to his side. He holds a book as if it were just another tool, something to swat a fly or level a shaky workbench.

Cliff built the prison. He says it like that, too

“I built this fuckin’ place,” he tells William, a new student.

“We know, Killa. We know,” says Carlos, Cliff’s sidekick.

“Yeah, but he don’t know.”

“Well, now he knows.”

“Shiiit,” William says. “This one job you no need to finish, brotha.”

*     *     *

I don’t ask Cliff why he’s here. I never ask any of my students about their crimes. It’s not so much off limits as it is bad taste. Like talking about the cause of death at a funeral. What difference does it make? We’re here now.

He alludes to domestic abuse, his wife that just would not shut up, and the other students nod in agreement. One day a crazy wife, next a crazy girlfriend. First the wife is cheating, then a prostitute steals Cliff’s wallet at a Motel 6.  He tells me I couldn’t handle a black woman. Too much work. You ain’t got the skills for the job.

Cliff also tells me stories about buried treasure he dug up on job sites all around Boston. Gold coins, pearls, rubies, diamonds. Secret riches everywhere. When we watch a documentary on Ancient Rome, camera panning across crumbling columns, Cliff stands up and shouts: It’s right there, man! Underneath all that shit. The narrator describes a sharp tool called a dolabra, which workers used to carve out blocks for the city’s defensive wall. A foreman once drove a dolabra into the chest of one of his workers for sleeping on the job. But Cliff doesn’t seem to hear any of this. He leans in close to the screen, still squinting for gold.

Cliff had to turn over all his treasure to the foremen. The way he describes them, his foremen were loony old prospectors with scraggly beards and short cigars. Beneath Emerson College, he tells me, while they were constructing the new freshman dormitories, they found pirate bones.

“No bullshit. You wouldn’t believe what’s buried underneath this city.”

*     *     *

The House of Correction is a ten-story building crowned in concertina wire and an American flag that, on windy days, clangs and pops like a docked sailboat. The HOC is on the edge of the South End, a rich part of town where young couples sleep in piano factories converted into luxury lofts. Construction began in the late 1980s and finished on Christmas Day, 1991. The old House of Correction was on Deer Island in the Boston Harbor—a looming Shawshank of a building that seemed to have always been there, as if it rose from the ocean like volcanic rock. Though the facility on Deer Island wasn’t built until the early 1800s, the island has been home to prisoners since the 1600s, when the Colonial government shipped thousands of Native Americans off the mainland and onto the Harbor Islands. Many remained there until their death.

So when Cliff tells me Deer Island was haunted because it was built on an Indian burial ground—that some nights the snow drifting through his barred window formed an angry white face—I start thinking about college students sleeping above pirate bones.

*     *     *

Cliff also built Pine Street Inn, the homeless shelter around the corner from the HOC, where, in a few months, he’ll stand in line for a room. At night, he’ll buy a blowjob in the alley, lean back against the stone wall, calf muscles flexing against the chipped foundation.

“Unless the wife takes me back.”

He built the methadone clinic. The Food Bank. The Prudential Building. The Copley Mall. The Gucci and French Connection stores on Newbury Street. Hynes Convention Center. The parking garage beneath the Common. The Hancock Building. The Tobin Bridge.

He was part of the Big Dig, which re-routed Interstate 93, Boston’s central artery, into a four-mile tunnel through the heart of the city. Cliff is reluctant to give details about the job, a blemish on his resume. If he could do it all over again, he never would have worked on such a costly, incompetent, crooked site. Never would have used substandard materials—shoddy concrete, cheap rebar.

“And for the record, I was in prison when the tunnel collapsed on that broad.” He wipes his hands together then holds his palms up by his sides. “That’s one thing the city can’t pin on me.”

*     *     *

When Cliff blames the White Man, somehow it’s clear he’s not talking about me. It’s more like all his problems—his wife and back aches and court cases—were hollow outlines in his mind and needed a color. Other times, when we’re listening to the radio and working on the computer, his tough facade falls, brick by brick, letter by letter, and he talks about his life in no color at all.

Two dozen years ago, his breakfast of champions was a hardboiled egg and a glass of Wild Irish Rose. Narragansett tallboys rattled in his lunchbox. As he walked to work, he sipped a flask of Jack Daniels. After lunch, his eyelids heavy, he scaled the HOC’s iron skeleton. He stood on the fifth floor beam, hardhat tucked under one arm, swaying with the breeze. The city stretched out below. He watched the traffic stream down Massachusetts Avenue until the cars and trucks vanished behind the buildings. He crammed his hardhat between his knees and put his palms on either side of The Prudential Building. Like a vise, he slowly pressed his palms together until the building disappeared.

And then he was on his back, in a giant pile of sand, blinking up at an empty sky.

*     *     *

For a few weeks after the fall, he didn’t drink. He didn’t visit prostitutes. He came home early to his wife. He tells me this one day when we’re alone, his back to the computer screen’s blinking cursor, radio off. He talks in a slow, gruff voice like a statue learning to speak. A droplet of sweat lingers on his bald head, then rolls over the lump above his temple.

“I was even cookin’ her dinner, man. Baked macaroni with ham. Steak and mashed potatoes. Pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw and corn on the cob. From scratch.”

He describes his wife as a tall, lean woman, sharp features like carved mahogany. A tennis player from the projects. Cliff was hypnotized by her side-to-side movements, her little white skirt, how she waved her racket like a wand. They met when Cliff was eighteen, a year before his first construction job. She was sixteen. They made love for the first time in an abandoned lot between two vacant buildings. Cliff tucked a paint-splattered drop cloth underneath his arm and when they came to the lot’s chained link fence, he peeled back a loose section and guided her inside. A year later, they married.

“Don’t get me wrong, I had to work on her. Wear her down some. ‘Member what I told you ‘bout black women.”

*     *     *

The Friday before Christmas, we watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I always have perfect attendance on movie days; the room is full of men all shapes and sizes, ages and races in baggy tan jumpsuits. Cliff sits in the front row, legs stretched and crossed at the ankles, hands behind his head. He snaps his fingers and calls me “maestro” and asks if he could trouble me for a large popcorn. And a root beer.

“Can it, Killa,” Carlos says. “Chief’s about to bust loose.”

Cliff stares at Carlos as the music swells, then turns to watch Chief raise the marble water fountain over his head. Higher. Higher. The first uncertain step and the fountain tips forward and Chief’s huge body and the momentum of the heavy fountain and the iron screen and glass burst onto an open field and in the end it’s gravity that flings man and marble back into the world. The other patients bolt up in their beds and cheer and holler and pound clenched fists against the air.

“Any fool can destroy something,” Cliff says.

A slow drum beat guides Chief toward Canada. Carlos leans forward and squeezes Cliff’s bicep.

“Damn, yo. You been liftin’ water fountains or what?”

The class laughs as the credits roll.

“Any fool can destroy something,” Cliff says. He leans over and gives the white cinderblocks two solid smacks. “Like to see him try that here.”

“You proud’a this place, Killa?” Carlos asks, eyes narrowing. The clock ticks behind its metal cage.

Cliff leans back in his seat, points his copy of Cuckoo’s Nest at Carlos. “Damn right.” He paints a long arc in the air with his book. “All of it.”

The officer pokes his head into the silent room and shouts “Count time, gentleman!” The students quickly file out, whispering “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year.” Cliff stands and stretches, lingers in a wide, Papa-Bear yawn, then struts up to my desk. He glances at my folder, peeks under a few stray papers. I take out the picture of Arthur Ashe I printed to hang up with his report.

“There he is,” Cliff says, grinning.

I stand up on a chair with a thumbtack in my hand and hold the picture above the dry-erase board, where the paper snowflakes once were.

“That ain’t straight,” Cliff says.

I reach higher and adjust the paper. “How’s that?”

Cliff shakes his head. “Little to the left.”

The officer shouts Cliff’s name from the hallway.

“Good?”

“To the right.”

I turn to see him holding his thumbs and pointer fingers like a field goal post.

“Perfect, maestro.”

Daries photoAnthony D’Aries is the author of The Language of Men: A Memoir (Hudson Whitman Press, 2012), which received the PEN/New England Discovery Prize in Nonfiction and was recently awarded a gold medal at Foreword Magazine’s 2012 Book of the Year Awards. His essays have appeared in The Literary Review, Solstice, The Good Men Project, and elsewhere. He has taught literacy and creative writing in the Massachusetts Correctional System and is currently the Director of the Writing Program at Regis College.

Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation

I ask Luke to please control the monkey.

The monkey is a puppet on Luke’s hand—a floppy fabric imitation of the animal with bits of pink silk for the insides of the ears—and he is ambushing the other children. Luke sneaks up behind a girl who is coloring and grabs her face with the monkey. She screams.

Luke is five and quick to hit; the impact of his sweaty palm always surprises me even though I should expect it. He is small enough, though, that if he gets too out of control I can rein him in, pick him up, bring his face level with mine. I try to reason with him, hold his gaze, but his blue eyes roll backwards into his head; he flails and slaps, arching his back and then collapsing, trying to free himself from my grasp by whip-lashing his body. Eventually, he exhausts himself and goes limp. The other kids don’t like it when you hit them. It’s not nice … ok? Ok. And then he starts to screech. Sometimes he spits.

Even if he is nodding in agreement, his chin bobbing furiously—yes I am going to stop—as soon as I set him down, he sprints to the table and overturns a Monopoly board. As the metal tokens fly through the air, he laughs. The sound of his laughter is pure.

After school, the kids are wired and my job is crisis control. In addition to Luke, there are sometimes twenty-five students, ranging in age from four to twelve, and it’s not hard to lose control. I dole out Cheez-Its for snacks, notice the small group of children huddled in the back of the classroom and realize someone has stolen a package of Oreos. I go outside to coach a toddler off the highest part of the jungle gym, then come back inside to find four girls covered in thick Tempera paint. They know I am outnumbered. And I am a sucker for imaginative excuses. We needed the paint because we wanted to be invisible, because we are doing this play about invisible underwater mermaids, so we needed to be blue, the girls insist.

*     *     *

The monkey is getting out of hand. The girl, who had been coloring a fairy princess dog, is now sobbing, pleading with me to make him stop.

I decide on a new approach. Luke, I say, If the monkey does not behave, I am going to call the cops.

Every kid in the room is alert. Some hold their breath. They continue playing and building silently, but they are waiting for the officers with shiny badges and handcuffs to knock down the door.

Every kid in the room is alert. Some hold their breath. They continue playing and building silently, but they are waiting for the officers with shiny badges and handcuffs to knock down the door. Luke looks at the monkey and then back at me. His eyes widen. He runs toward me shaking the puppet the way a priest shakes a crucifix to ward off a demon. One curled hand and one monkey fist alternately pound on my thighs. I dial the invisible phone in my hand. Hello. Police? I need help. I need you to arrest the monkey.

I run over to the box of puppets and find a suitable law enforcement representative. Doing my best siren, I march over to Luke with my makeshift cop and apprehend the monkey puppet, removing it from his small hand.

Luke begins to wail. Salted water coats his fat cheeks. He is not crying in the way that he usually cries when I take a toy away or put him in time out. The crying is desperate, vulnerable, the wail of a bereft mother. He is saying, He’s dead, he’s dead. The monkey is dead. You killed him.

*     *     *

Luke is always one of the last kids to be picked up. Every afternoon, with thirty minutes of aftercare left, I sit down on the floor cross-legged and read a story, hoping the kids will calm down. While it’s not immediate, the stories send a calm throughout the room. Eventually even the die-hard Lego kids wander over and give into gravity, flopping on the floor, the exhaustion of the day finally setting in. Even some of the fifth graders drag chairs near, pretending not to listen.

Luke is the most adamant instigator of story time. He tugs on my shorts every day, always toting the same book, Tyrone the Horrible. Read this. When I frown, he asks, Miss Josie will you please read this. I sit down on the carpet and Luke climbs into my lap. He squeezes the skin on my legs. He curls up against me, rests his blonde head against my chest, and digs his clammy fingers into my arms. Luke just can’t get close enough.

The book is about a dinosaur named Boland who is terrorized by Tyrone, the world’s first bully. Tyrone has sharp white triangles for teeth and yellow eyes, and his awful smile reminds me of the expression Luke wears right before he upends a chessboard or empties a bucket of water on another kid. The story doesn’t follow the usual ‟Do the Right Thing and Everything Will Be OK” formula found in children’s books. When Boland stands up to Tyrone, Tyrone beats the shit out of him.

One of the other little boys, Ritchie, always says, That’s a baby story. I would have beat up Tyrone like a ninja. He loves to karate-kick the air. HIIIIIII-YA. Ritchie’s dad is a jazz musician, making Ritchie way too cool to be only seven. He can do the moonwalk and always wants to know why Luke acts so crazy. Ritchie’s eyes bug out when Luke writhes on the ground. Man what is wrong with Luke? He’s not right.

*     *     *

Kids yell at you. They say horrible things, like I HATE YOU AND I HOPE YOU DIE. But they’re also fast forgivers. Luke is howling, pointing at the monkey, and I am afraid this will not pass quickly. You killed him, he keeps saying, his chin rolling back and forth on his chest. I know he is not lying. I killed the monkey. I tried to arrest the monkey and instead I killed it. I panic.

Luke it’s ok. Gently, I make the monkey’s arm wave. See? The monkey’s not dead.

YES. HE. IS. Violently, Luke slams the monkey on the ground.

Inspiration. Luke it’s okay because I know monkey CPR. I happen to be a very skilled veterinarian.

Sitting in one of the child-sized chairs, I lean over and place my lips on the felt primate and pretend to blow air into his nonexistent lungs. Performing CPR on a monkey, I think, is probably similar to performing CPR on an infant.

I gingerly scoop up the puppet and set him on the table. Sitting in one of the child-sized chairs, I lean over and place my lips on the felt primate and pretend to blow air into his nonexistent lungs. Performing CPR on a monkey, I think, is probably similar to performing CPR on an infant. Cover the mouth and nose with your own mouth. Use two or three fingers in the center of the chest to perform gentle chest compressions. In lifeguard training I had been terrified by the thought of pressing into the tiny fragile chest; I was sure their ribcage would be crushed even if I only used my index and middle finger. Press harder, the instructor would urge me. You need to jumpstart the heart. Keep it beating with your force.

Behind me, Luke deals a flurry of slaps to my waist. HE’S DEAD. HE’S NOT MOVING. THERE IS BLOOD ALL OVER HIS FACE. I stop.

Luke goes limp and slumps against my leg, his cheeks hot and flushed. He is mumbling, It’s dead it’s dead it doesn’t matter. One of the little girls, a frequent victim of Luke’s, looks up, purple crayon in hand and points. Is he really dead? My stomach drops. I remember precisely the moment when I knew death in the way that you cannot un-know it. My sister called me up and I was twenty-two and abroad and she said, your best friend died. And I said, what, because I didn’t believe her, and she said, he drowned. And I thought, fuck rivers, and fuck you Jay because you weren’t wearing a lifejacket. You fucking asshole. I clung to facts: in water that cold—it was a glacially fed stream—and in water that cold he would have been dead in minutes. The current was so fast. His boss said he just slipped and then disappeared, was swept away, vanished. They found him miles downstream, and all I could think about was the body, blue and grey, waterlogged, swollen fingers and face.

The monkey’s bloody face. A silence settles at the coloring table, the soft drag of crayons coming to a halt. The girls are thinking about the dead monkey. They are wondering about the things they see through their moms’ fingers on the TV screen. They are wondering if that cat in the road was really sleeping. They are wondering about the red that’s leaking from the man’s ears on the television after the boom. Or maybe they have blocked it out. Maybe death is still a concept they do not understand. They don’t believe, as Luke does, that the monkey has been stabbed over and over in the face. They don’t see the blood.

Vodou. I think. Or magic. I will resurrect the monkey. I want to bring it back to life, but to do so would be to sugarcoat a concept that for whatever reason, Luke already understands: living things die, and they don’t come back, except in our memories. Kids like coloring books because there are clear boundaries: in the lines and out. The facts of Jay’s death bleed like watercolors on notebook paper into my imagined recollection of the event; at times, it is too blurry to make out which parts are which.

My sister is an archaeologist and she tells me, when you find a hard white bit of something in the sand, and you need to know if it is bone or rock, you put it in your mouth. If it’s bone, it sticks to your tongue. How do you know if something was real, alive? It sticks.

I don’t want Luke to know yet that you can’t choose which parts stick. I don’t want Luke to know yet about the permanence, about the fact that you will remember the worst things too, not just the best days when you would ride your bikes together across the Stone Arch Bridge, across the frozen Mississippi, your hot fast breath twin puffs of white in the night sky, when you would bike so fast you didn’t dare turn your handle bars for fear of skidding out on the black ice, racing one another like deities tearing through the city. You will remember all the blood pouring out, too, the things you didn’t even see, existing only in your imagination. The fat fingers, puckered and pruney hands like those of a kid who stayed too long in the bathtub.

But Luke already knows. There is no miracle.

I pick him up and we go sit in a chair in the corner. We leave the monkey on the table, crumpled, lifeless. We read stories. For him, or for me, I am not sure.

Josie Scanlan

Josie Ann Scanlan was born in Minnesota and owns a Bob Dylan necktie. The first story she ever wrote featured an earthworm protagonist who was afraid of everything, especially roller coasters. She’s a sucker for public radio and is currently pursuing her MFA in nonfiction at the University of New Orleans.

 

“Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation” is a Best of the Net 2013 finalist, selected by Margaret Lazarus Dean. Congratulations to Josie Ann Scanlan!

Writing My Way Out of the Past

When I was a child, I signed my granddaddy’s Social Security checks for him. He never learned to read or write, and he never attended any type of school. As the grandson of slaves from Georgia and South Carolina, all my granddaddy knew of the world was the tiny corner of northeast Georgia where we lived.

Granddaddy was a man of habit. Whenever I visited his house, he would always sit in the same corner of his living room in the exact same chair. Every day, even in summer when everyone else was loafing off toward the swimming holes, he wore denim bib overalls with a long-sleeved flannel shirt underneath them and a pair of tan-colored boots. My granddaddy had a head of completely white hair (just as my mother does today and just as I imagine I will also have some day). His brown eyes had a grayish film to them, and in certain lighting they had a glowing luminosity. Granddaddy had terrible eyesight and wore glasses.

“Lee, Monic,” he would say to my momma and me, “I’m blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other one.” It was his idea of a joke, but no one ever laughed.

Momma used to drive Granddaddy and me to the Community Bank and Trust in Commerce, Georgia. The bank was inside a grocery store, the least expensive market in town. The grocery shared a shopping plaza with a Family Dollar and a rickety furniture store. At the bank’s counter, Granddaddy would write a gnarled letter ‘X’ next to the endorsement line, and I would write ‘Edgar Johnson’ for him in my big, round handwriting. On those days, Granddaddy would stand very straight, but his eyes would always be cast down, or else he would look at some spot behind the teller’s head. I never understood why he did that until I grew older.

As an adult, I have a hard time conceiving the idea of not knowing how to read or write.

As an adult, I have a hard time conceiving the idea of not knowing how to read or write. Sometimes, even now, whenever I’m reading or writing something interesting, I think about Granddaddy. Books are such a big part of my life that I don’t know what I would do without them. I studied English in college. I had big dreams of becoming a writer, but after graduation I focused on getting a practical job.  Because I was a Social Work minor, I was able to get a position as a case manager in state government, processing Medicaid and Food Stamp cases.

Most of the customers in my caseload had a lot of the same problems—low wages, absent parents, children to feed. Most of the cases run together as one in my mind, but there is one woman I will always remember: Nilda Sanchez. She reminded me of my granddaddy.

Nilda was a young Hispanic woman. She did not speak English well enough for me to interview her alone, and so we spoke through an interpreter. She came into the office with two dark-haired little girls. One was an infant child asleep in a car seat with a pink blanket draped over her. The older girl wore her hair in two ponytails, and her cheeks were so red that they seemed to have been colored in by a heavy-handed child.

I began to feel cramped with the five of us in my tiny office, and so I scooted my chair closer to the wall to allow more space between my body and Abraham, the interpreter. As Abraham introduced me to her, I noticed that Nilda kept looking around my office. There was a small vase of artificial flowers on the desk. She placed a fingertip on a petal, rubbed it as though it was something special.

She spoke softly in Spanish. “You are young for this job, right?” Abraham translated.

“About your age,” I replied. It was strange that she wanted to make small talk. Most customers just wanted their stamps.

Nilda had a bright pink mouth that was so chafed it looked as if the skin would crack open if she smiled any wider. She looked at everything—a radio on the shelf, a flower print on the wall, my imitation silk blouse—with full attention. Please, God, don’t let her be impressed by a job like this. I wanted to tell her that I was just like her—poor and living in a tiny apartment I could barely afford. But from the way Nilda kept looking at my clothes and the pictures on my desk, she probably would not have believed me.

I gave Nilda the standard Food Stamp review forms and then slid a pen across the table to her. Silently, she slid the pen and the forms back to me. I looked up at her, but she averted her eyes. Nilda began to speak again, and Abraham leaned forward and cocked his head to the side as though he was having trouble hearing her. I recognized the Spanish words formas and ayuda. Finally, Abraham turned and looked at me as he said, “I don’t know how to fill out the forms. Can you help me?”

“It’s okay,” I said. “They’re in Spanish.” I pointed to the first line, which indicated NOMBRE in big, bold letters.

Nilda dropped her eyes back to the carpet. “No. I didn’t go to school,” Abraham translated. “I don’t read Spanish at all. Can you help me?”

I cut my eyes from Abraham to Nilda. They both looked expectantly at me.

I had never met anyone my own age who couldn’t read. Up until that moment, I had thought of illiteracy as a problem that plagued my granddaddy’s generation.

I wasn’t sure what the protocol was. Should I fill out the forms for her, or would she need an authorized representative? I had never met anyone my own age who couldn’t read. Up until that moment, I had thought of illiteracy as a problem that plagued my granddaddy’s generation. Looking at her across the desk from me was like being transported back to childhood. For a moment, I felt as if I were still standing beside my granddaddy writing his name for him at the bank’s counter.

I excused myself and went down the hall to my co-worker’s office.

“Lisa?” I said as I stuck my head in the door.

She sighed and banged her phone so loudly against the desk that I jumped. I looked at it, expecting to see a broken receiver. I stood there for an awkward moment, unsure what to say next. Finally, I launched into my explanation of Nilda’s situation. She stopped me mid-sentence and said, “We have a lobby full of people out there. Just give her the damned Food Stamps.”

And so I asked Nilda the questions aloud, and she answered through the interpreter. As I was writing, I remembered how disgusted a co-worker had been several weeks ago when she talked about undocumented immigrants stealing jobs from Americans, and it made me even more upset. How could a girl like this—a girl who couldn’t even speak, read or write English—steal a job from someone, especially when she was illiterate in her own language as well?

I stumbled through the interview, and after the last question I handed the clipboard to her.

“Are you able to sign?” I asked, almost certain of what her answer would be. Nilda seemed to know what I meant even before Abraham gave her my words. She shook her head and then wordlessly handed the pen and clipboard to her daughter. The child could have been no more than seven or eight years old. She carefully printed her mother’s name in big, round letters.

The child met my eyes for a moment as she handed the paperwork back to me. I wanted to tell her that girls like her were the ones who would grow up to tell our stories. I wanted to tell her to keep her head up, but I didn’t.

*     *     *

Last year, I wrote a fiction story about a 12-year-old boy who teaches his grandfather to read. It was the tale of a man who was somehow made better by writing elementary words from a primer. It was about a boy who took pride in knowing that his grandfather would die literate. My own granddaddy died when I was twelve, an age when I was still too young to understand the importance of literacy. Today, I realize I wrote that story to make myself feel better about never teaching my granddaddy to read. I thought a fictional story could help me forget the truth or somehow put it behind me. It didn’t. Today, I know that the truths about my family will never be told in feel-good stories. Our history is a sad one, and I cannot invent another.

As a child, reading and writing were nothing more than leisure activities, things to occupy my mind and entertain me. Reading was the thing that allowed me to crawl into the juvenile fiction I devoured every day and night. It took me years to learn that illiteracy was the most immediate cause of my granddaddy’s poverty. It would take still longer for me to learn that a limited education was the thing that kept him sharecropping someone else’s land for so many years. When I finally learned all of these things, it seemed that my entire childhood could be divided between a period of not knowing them and an era of accepting harsh realities about my family. Not knowing made me ignorant, but knowing made me sad. To me, sad was better.

Monic DuctanMonic Ductan has an undergrad degree in English from Georgia State University, and is currently study poetry in the MFA program at Georgia College. Her work has recently appeared in Bartleby Snopes, DOGZPLOT, Subtle Fiction, Crab Creek Review and numerous other journals. She’s been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes this year, and is currently a fiction finalist in the Agnes Scott College Writers’ Festival Contest.

 

Baby Talk

While they are standing online waiting to jump into the Double Dutch ropes, I overhear twelve year old Margie Golden tell Sarah Lundy about abortion. “What’s abortion?” I ask.

“Never mind,” Margie says, tossing her fat braids that always hit her in her fat face when she tries to make her fat body jump.

“What’s abortion,” I ask again.

“Turn,” she says. I wind the rope tight around my hand.

“Tell me,” I say.

“Okay,” she says stomping her foot and spitting through her rabbit teeth. “It’s when mothers kill their babies.”

“That’s a crime,” I say. “They’d go to Riker’s for that where your old man is doin’ time.” I love saying doin’ time like Jimmy Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces.

“They kill them before they’re born, Stupid, like your old lady did to your three sisters. For a nine year old, you don’t know much.” When Margie jumps into the ropes, I jerk them so she trips.

I didn’t tell Margie that I already knew about my three sisters especially the one who didn’t even have a name. One night when we were telling scary stories as we roasted Mickeys over a fire in a garbage can in front of 615, Ronald Schneider from 2D told me about the babies. “I remember when your mother had a big belly a coupla times but I never seen a baby. My mother told me she brought one home but I ain’t seen that baby neither. That’s pretty scary,” he said. He never mentioned abortion. He’s as old as Margie but he’s not as smart as her especially about girl things. Margie’s a liar. My mother is too gentle to be a killer.

*     *     *

At home my mother held Peter in her lap for hours as though he were the messiah. She slipped baby peaches into his mouth with a silver spoon and sang Where the Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea. “

When my Aunt Tess was with child, I always said my aunt is with child to my friends. I thought it made her seem like Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Mary was with child. It sounds so beautiful compared to the word pregnant with its hard g and n which sounds like a grunt. Aunt Tess gave birth to twin sons, Francie and Peter, two ginger-haired, roly poly boys. Francie was born with kidney problems. “Nefridis,” my mother said. My mother went to visit him in St. Francis Hospital everyday and she took care of Peter for Aunt Tess when she stayed over at the hospital. At home my mother held Peter in her lap for hours as though he were the messiah. She slipped baby peaches into his mouth with a silver spoon and sang Where the Mountains of Mourne Sweep Down to the Sea. “That’s so he’ll know where he sprang from,” she’d say. Baby killers don’t sing to babies especially ones that aren’t their own.

*     *     *

When Mama went upstairs to see Francie in the hospital with my Pooh Bear under her arm, I’d wander up and down the marble hallways of St. Francis because kids weren’t allowed to visit patients. Outside, there was a garden with a statue of Francis of Assisi in brown robes and sandals with a bird flying out of his hand. St. Francis loved flowers, trees and animals. He cared for lepers dying in the streets and gave all his riches to the poor. I figured a saint as wonderful as he would keep an eagle eye on a baby named for him.

*     *     *

The day after Francie dies, I have to return A Tall White Sail and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay to the library because they are overdue. I already owe eight cents on them; eight cents buys four squirrel nuts and four red dollars at Shapiro’s. I head straight for the huge encyclopedia sitting on a pedestal in the adult section of the library. First, I grab the display copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gifts from the Sea for Mama. In class recently, Sister Mercedes spoke about it and told us the sad story of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping. She said each chapter was a meditation on various sea shells; each was filled with beautiful thoughts. I think the book might help Mama and having it is a good excuse for me being in the adult section when the librarian sees me. We call her Bela because she looks like a female version of Lugosi’s Dracula and because she acts as though every volume in the library is her personal property. We kids joke that soon we’ll have to give blood to take out a book.

I have no trouble finding the word abortion: Abortion is medically defined as the termination of a pregnancy by the removal or expulsion from the uterus of a fetus or embryo before it is viable. As quickly as I can, I thumb through the thin pages and look up uterus, fetus, embryo, viable. Viable: able to survive outside the womb. But what the encyclopedia doesn’t tell me is how women abortion their babies. As I’m searching for illustrations, I hear Bela stomping across the oak floors in her oxfords, “Go to the children’s section, young lady,” she says, pointing her long, bony finger at me. I slam the encyclopedia shut.

*     *     *

In the sports section, Bobbie Mallon is checking out the baseball books. “Hey, good lookin,’” he says. “I’m lookin’ for a bio of Babe Ruth.” He says bio like he’s so cool. In class when he closes the windows with the six foot window pole, he’s always eyeing me like I’m really impressed with his puny muscles when he hoists the pole up like it’s a spear. His mother should have abortioned him. She has ten kids. When the apartment next to theirs became vacant, the Mallons rented it.

“Hey, Bobbie, I say, are you in 2B or 2C this week? Which bell do I ring?” Mama wonders how they can afford two forty dollar rents. Another funny thing about The Mallons is that Mrs. Mallon is 5’ 8” and Mr. Mallon is 5’3”. We call them Mutt and Jeff.

*     *     *

I never thought you needed money to have babies. The thing is I know my father was out of work during the thirties when my sisters were born. “I sold apples, rags in the street,” he once told me. “We just arrived in the country and the economy collapsed. Immigrants were the last to get jobs.” Maybe my folks had no money for clothes or food for the babies. But Mama didn’t need money to feed her babies. I remember her nursing my brother after he was born.

In National Geographic you see photographs of women holding skinny babies with swollen bellies in their arms. The babies’ noses run and flies buzz around their heads. I wonder if it might be okay for those mothers to kill their babies rather than have them suffer for months and months when you know they’re going to die anyway like Francie.

*     *     *

Tonight after supper my gang is having a Double Dutch tournament in the schoolyard. We’re bringing bags of chips and lemonade for the jumpers. We had to invite some girls we hate because we need extra ropes. Even though we never invite the boys because their arms and legs get all tangled up in the ropes, they show up anyway just to annoy us. Actually our ropes are clotheslines our mothers no longer use. Mama sends me to Levy’s Hardware to replace her worn lines. “I don’t want a line filled with scrubbed laundry to break and fall into the sooty backyard,” she says. My father sends me to Levy’s to buy screws and nails or to borrow a Philip’s head screw driver. My parents are always sending me someplace; they have to nap, they say.

I’m thinking Mr. Levy might be the right person to ask about the how of abortion because he tells everyone in the neighborhood how to fix things plus he goes to a temple, not our church so he won’t run into my folks on the weekend and tell them I’m asking strange questions.

Mr. Levy’s left pinky is missing and his nails are crusted with grease. Sawdust covers the creaky wood floor in his store and a million cardboard boxes piled on top of one another line the shelves. He slides a wooden ladder along a bar to reach the high shelves. Sometimes he lets me climb up and get items down for him. Even if it’s two inch nails or one inch screws, he knows exactly where they are. I’m thinking Mr. Levy might be the right person to ask about the how of abortion because he tells everyone in the neighborhood how to fix things plus he goes to a temple, not our church so he won’t run into my folks on the weekend and tell them I’m asking strange questions.

*     *     *

I think I might become a nun. It’s not that I like getting up at five am but nuns wear those white linen habits so they don’t have to fuss over clothes or their hair or killing babies or if they have a big enough passage for a baby to slide through. In my bedroom last night I bent over to see if I could see down there. I couldn’t so I stood on my head and let my feet fall forward down to the floor like I was a triangle. I still couldn’t see. I stuck my fingers inside. How could a baby slip through such a small space? I wondered. I weighed almost nine pounds when I was born. That’s like two bags of sugar. And how could a mother abortion a baby inside her without hurting herself?

When all the kids were running through the spray of the fire hydrant last night at dusk, I spoke to Dolores Franken from 3C on the stoop. Everybody says she had a baby when she was fifteen. I’ve never seen the baby so I think it’s a lie people make up because she wears tight pencil skirts and angora sweaters like Rita Hayworth. And because she’s German descent. Everyone bad mouths Germans since the war. People are so dumb because Dolores’ brother Richard died in the war fighting on our side. Besides I like Dolores; she’s pretty and she tells me stories about how during the war German soldiers threw Jewish babies up in the air and shot them like clay pigeons. She tells me how sugar and meat were rationed all over the U.S. and how everyone poured out onto our streets on the day the war ended and hugged and kissed each other.

“How does a mother abortion her baby,” I ask as I swing my leg over the iron railing on the stoop and sit on it. Dolores starts filing her Fire Engine Red fingernails fast and shakes her head.

With my hands on my hips, I say, “Tell me, Dolores.”

“They go to secret doctors.”

“What does the doctor do?”

“He pulls out the baby and crushes its skull.”

“Oh my God,” I say. My head begins to spin. I cover my mouth, jump off the railing and run to the gutter. I think I might throw up my guts.

*     *     *

Sometimes when I’m eating dinner and my father insists I sit until I finish my spinach which he should know by now is never, ever going to happen,  I imagine my three sisters all chubby and rosy crawling around under the table tickling my toes and the bottom of my feet. They giggle and mumble and sing songs like Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall and Mary Had a Little Lamb. I can’t help smiling.

“Do you see something funny in all this?” my father asks as he turns the pages of The Daily News, a paper that, by the way, has great photos of killings. At night when I pretend my sisters are in bed with me, they get all twisted in the sheets. They’re so smart they even know how to tickle backs or trace words on my back with their fingers and I have to guess the word. Last night each one traced her name on my back: Patricia, Margaret and Baby. I told you they were smart. When I have sunburn they peel the dead skin from my shoulders.

Sometimes when I’m bored I see them swinging on our clothesline between my father’s overalls and my brother’s Yankee tee shirt. They flip backwards and forwards on the line like acrobats. I want to yell, “Mama, come and see how much fun they are, but something inside me tells me not to.”

When I see Mama staring at the apple green wall in the kitchen and not drinking her tea, I get angry because I know she’s sad over those babies. When I go to bed and they come visit me, I kick them out of the bed or I take a pillow and press it over their faces especially over the face of Baby who never got a real name. I want to see what abortion feels like.

Liz DolanLiz Dolan’s second poetry manuscript, A Secret of Long Life, which is seeking a publisher, was nominated for the Robert McGovern Prize. Her first poetry collection, They Abide, was published by March Street Press. A six-time Pushcart nominee and winner of The Best of the Web, she has also won an established artist fellowship in poetry and two honorable mentions in prose from the Delaware Division of the Arts. She recently won The Nassau Prize for prose. Liz serves on the poetry board of Philadelphia Stories. Her nine grandkids, who live one block away from her, pepper her life.